Inspecting your trees in the winter

By V.J. Comai

Trees provide many benefits and can be a true asset to any property, but they can also become a liability if structural deficiencies go unnoticed. While it takes a trained professional to complete a comprehensive risk assessment of any tree, there are signs that you can look for on your own that can indicate the need for such an assessment. Take advantage of the relatively mild weather and lack of snow cover to complete a visual inspection of your trees this winter.

Larger trees in close proximity to a structure or some other target can cause considerable damage or serious injury to objects or people within the fall zone should all or part of the tree fail. For deciduous trees, the lack of foliage during the winter months offers a great opportunity to get an unobstructed view of the entire canopy of the tree to look for signs of possible structural issues that may indicate a potential hazard.

When looking at the overall structure of the tree, pay special attention to the unions or crotches where branches connect or where a single trunk splits into two trunks of nearly equal size forming a narrow V. The presence of an inward folding crease known as included bark is indicative of a weak connection that has a significantly higher risk of failure under heavy wind or snow loading.

Lack of foliage can also reveal large dead limbs or hanging broken limbs that could have resulted from a storm last summer. These limbs, when falling from significant heights, can pose a very serious hazard to anything below.

The presence of mushrooms or conks, the fruiting bodies of fungus, are indicators of decay, and further investigation may be warranted to determine the extent of the decay and its significance in the overall structural integrity of the tree.

Cavities, openings in the main trunk or limbs, cracks and splits, and evidence of extensive excavations by woodpeckers are also red flags that should prompt further investigation by a certified professional.

Binoculars can be a handy tool for getting a better look at the upper canopy of large trees, and you should take some time to walk around and view from different angles.

Visual signs that indicate possible structural defects should receive attention before next growing season as foliage and new growth add significant weight and loading during wind and rain events, increasing the risk of failure.

Be sure to also look at the base of the trunk for any signs of decay, cavities, fruiting bodies, and missing bark that may indicate issues below the surface that have compromised a significant portion of the roots that could result in total tree failure.

Investing a little time to take a closer look at your trees can help to avoid major problems down the road. Hopefully, your inspection will not reveal any reasons for concern, but if it does, be certain to contact a certified arborist trained in tree risk assessment to complete a comprehensive evaluation.

V.J. Comai is a resident of Charlotte and works as an arborist representative for Bartlett Tree Experts in the Greater Burlington area. For nearly 25 years he managed the South Forty Nursery in Charlotte where he grew field produced trees and shrubs for the wholesale market.He is a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture, (ISA) and  past president of Green Works, The Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association.

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