Storms bring tree issues to fore

By Caroline Connors

Chicago, IL (August 25, 2010)- Majestic trees are a hallmark of Beverly/Morgan Park, but as many local residents can attest, their beauty can lead to destruction when Mother Nature wreaks havoc.

The series of storms that blew through the area this summer created tree-related headaches for the city of Chicago, ComEd and homeowners alike. From June 18 to Aug. 20, the 19th Ward received 767 calls that were deemed tree emergencies; many of the calls were clustered around three major storms, said 19th Ward Administrative Aide Noreen Hughes.

For a majority of residents, the tree damage caused by these storms was a temporary inconvenience: streets and driveways became impassible due to fallen trees; hundreds of residents lost electricity after high winds caused downed trees and limbs, which invariably landed on power lines; and homes, garages and cars suffered damage from fallen trees and limbs. For two local families, however, the aftermath of the storms proved to 13be tragic: a young woman lost her life and a man was seriously injured when they were injured by fallen tree limbs in separate incidents on June 18.

While some breakage is inevitable during extreme weather-especially with rapidly changing or swirling winds-there are precautions homeowners can take to guard against future damage, local experts said. Pruning is an important part of maintenance that can help protect the trees from the devastating effects of wind, snow and ice. According to Dan Krug, a certified arborist with the Care of Trees in Chicago, having trees thinned out reduces the “sailing effect” that is created from winds hitting a dense canopy of leaves. Heavy branching also traps more ice and snow during the winter months, which can lead to breakage.

While there are certain pruning jobs that homeowners can handle, retaining a professional for larger or more complicated jobs is recommended to avoid accidents or further damage to trees. An annual inspection performed by an arborist can determine if a tree is at risk, as evidenced by cracking on the main stem, decaying areas or poor branching angles, Krug said.

If pruning is warranted, a general rule of thumb is that no more than 10 to 15 percent of the tree should be cut away in any season, said Jason Sochacki, a horticulturist with Doran’s Landscape in Blue Island. It’s also important to use the proper tools and to know when to prune, Sochacki said. “Know the species you’re dealing with,” he said. “For instance, you need to wait until the first or second heavy frost to prune oak trees; it’s really bad to prune an oak right now because it will open up wounds on the tree and make it vulnerable to a beetle that carries oak wilt disease.”

Benign neglect of mature trees is a common mistake among property owners, Krug said. “The lawn and flowers are at eye level, and people aren’t necessarily looking up at their trees,” he said. “The mindset for most people who have some of these huge honey locusts or oaks is if these trees have been there that long they don’t need anything from me.” The stress of an urban environment, however, can take its toll on trees and have an exponential effect, he said. “The older they get, the more the stress impacts them,” Krug said.

Both Krug and Sochacki advised proper watering as a primary way of improving the structural health of trees at any age. A slow soaking with a hose positioned at the crown, or base, of the tree for 30 to 60 minutes every 10 days encourages deep root growth, which in turn anchors trees in the ground. Fertilization can also be beneficial for trees, experts said. According to Sochacki, grass does best in alkaline soil (a pH level of 6.9 to 7.2), while trees thrive in more acidic conditions (pH of 6.5). Amending the soil condition fortifies trees and gives them the proper nutrients, Krug said.

Just as inaction breeds problems, overdoing tree maintenance can also have negative affects, they said. A common error among property owners is over-mulching-mounding a mountain of mulch around the base of the tree, which can smother roots and lead to disease or rot. “Unfortunately, people see mulch around trees, and it’s monkey see, monkey do,” Sochacki said. While most tree emergencies are reported in the hours immediately following a severe storm, people should also be aware of latent damage, Krug said.

“Sometimes we get calls out of the blue that a tree branch fell down,” he said. “In most instances, the tree gets a crack during a storm and dries out, losing moisture and flexibility, before it eventually breaks.” Fallen limbs on trees located on the parkway should be reported to the ward office, while trees located between the public sidewalk and the building are the responsibility of the property owner, Hughes said. The city will respond to a tree emergency within 24 hours, but most local problems are resolved within two hours of the initial phone call, Hughes said. During the summer months, parkway trees that need trimming will be attended to within 90 days, she added.

Storm damage this summer brought an increase in business for the Care of Trees, Krug said, but it also led to increased stress for its arborists. Most trees can be salvaged if two-thirds of the tree is left standing, but arborists often have to act as counselors to help property owners decide on the best course of action, he said. “Taking a tree down can be hard. People get very attached to their trees, and for good reason-trees add aesthetic value to a home and can be very beneficial for the heating and cooling of the house,” Krug said. “On the other hand, you have people who want their land cleared-it’s one extreme or the other.”

If a tree is removed, planting the right type of replacement tree is an important part of the tree preservation process, experts said. Oaks, catalpas and Kentucky coffee trees are preferable to fast-growing, and thereby weak-wooded, trees like silver maples, said Carla Winterbottom, a founding member of the local organization Keeping Beverly Green. “Plant something that is hardy in this zone-5A away from the lake and 5B along the lakefront,” Sochacki added. The University of Illinois Extension, which has an office at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, is an excellent resource for choosing the right species for this area, he said.

Related Resources:
The Beverly Review- Storms bring tree issues to fore
Chicago Gateway Green