Tree Maintenance 101

Trees are a beautiful, long-lasting part of any landscape, and are relatively low maintenance when compared to other plants. However, their longevity can lead us to mistakenly believe that they don’t require tending. Though they are often hardy and adaptable, trees are far from invulnerable. With a small amount of careful maintenance, your trees can thrive and give pleasure to future generations. Here are the essentials.


Regular watering is essential with a newly planted tree. In the absence of adequate rainfall, be sure to soak the soil once a week throughout the first growing season to help the tree become well-established. If a dry spell hits, or the mercury starts to climb, you can increase the amount of water you use. Take care, however, not to over-water your tree, as too much water can promote root rot.

With an established tree, water with a lawn sprinkler at a rate of about 1 in. per watering, or 2 in. if you have thick, healthy lawn grass under the tree. Generally speaking, water once every week or two, increasing to once every 4 or 5 days during periods of drought or extreme heat.

Much Ado about Mulching

Mulching is a good, year-around guard against the fluctuations of temperature and moisture that can harm trees. Mulching doesn’t just protect the roots, it also recycles nutrients back to them. Maintain a thin layer of composted organic material, such as tree bark, in a circle radiating from the trunk of the tree to the farthest point of the drip line.

Fertilize to Maximize

Trees in their natural forest settings pull their nutrients from the decomposing material that covers the forest floor. In more urban settings, trees need our help to compensate for the absence of degradable organic material. To feed your tree, have your soil sampled at a local nursery or home center to learn which nutrients are in short supply. Then apply a top dressing of fertilizer over the mulch to keep your tree healthy and encourage new growth. Again, don’t love your tree to death and overdo it, as too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Follow the fertilizer manufacturer’s instructions for best results.

Aerate or Suffocate

Be on the lookout for soil that has become compacted over time, as it will prevent water and nutrients from reaching the roots and cause them to suffocate. If the soil appears waterlogged or especially dense, use an aerator to break up the first few inches of soil. Don’t go any deeper, as you may inadvertently damage the roots you’re trying to rescue.


Cut off dead, overlapping, or diseased branches to encourage new growth. It also helps strengthen your tree and protect it against storm damage, disease, and insects. While you can prune throughout the year, optimal pruning schedules can be different from tree to tree. Deciduous trees that flower in May should be pruned immediately after blooms appear. Deciduous trees that flower after May should be pruned around February or March. Flowering evergreens should be pruned in May, flowering cherry trees cropped in late summer, and conifers trimmed in autumn. Got that? Yes, it’ll be on the test.

Be judicious in your trimming, and don’t go overboard. First cut out the dead wood. Then trim any branch that is in danger of touching the ground, as it can be an invitation to pests and rot. Look for signs of structural weakness. You want to prevent a weak branch from simply giving way and possibly breaking off so that it creates a wound. Such wounds can be slow to heal, and they allow invasive insects and disease to gain a foothold. Finally, trim new growth at the base of the tree to maintain the tree’s desired shape. Never flush-cut a branch at the trunk.

WARNING: If you venture onto a ladder to prune upper branches, be careful up there. For tricky jobs, or if you’re simply not the most agile person on your block, consider hiring a service provider to do the dirty work for you.

CAUTION: Do not apply paint or sealant to freshly pruned branches. The United States Forest Service has found that such dressings can actually harm the tree, interfere with its natural defenses, and harbor microorganisms.

Be a Tree Hugger

It’s easy to take an established tree for granted. Maybe it was there when you moved in, and you’ve never lifted a finger to help it along. You’ve driven nails into it, lashed hammocks to it, banged it with the lawn mower and the car, and made it find its own food and water. While it may not curl up and die tomorrow from such abuse, it’s likely that you will end up drastically shortening its life, and you’ll surely miss it when it’s gone.

It takes a long time for a tree to reach maturity, and when a tree succumbs to disease or injury, it can leave a very big hole in your landscape that takes many years to heal over. So be kind to your tree, and don’t make these common mistakes:

  • Don’t plant trees too near to each other. They compete for resources, and fare better alone.
  • Don’t plant trees within 25 ft. of power lines, sewer lines, or water mains.
  • Don’t pave or otherwise cover the ground underneath a tree, as that can suffocate the roots.
  • Keep trimmers and lawnmowers a respectful distance from the tree trunk. Damaging the bark can expose the tree to insects and disease.
  • Don't attach objects to the tree with nails or anything that penetrates the bark.
  • Don't top your tree. 

But do take time to monitor the health of the trees on your property. Look for any clues that would indicate distress, and try to fix the problem as soon as possible. Your trees will thank you!

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Author: Robert Bundy