Trees in windbreaks and other rural settings around the farmstead have to be tough to survive. Unlike a protected urban site, rural tree plantings are often less managed and are stressed from additional exposure to sun, wind, snow and ice.
"Stresses damage trees," says Eric Berg, Nebraska Forest Service community forestry program leader. Berg told a group of tree enthusiasts at a Tree Care Workshop in Norfolk recently, that induced stress caused by mismanagement often sends trees into a "mortality spiral."
Over time, trees may dieback, become yellow or display quantities of wilted leaves and dead limbs. Some of these issues are caused by nature, disease and insects. But a fair share of these problems are man-made.
"Cultural issues are defined as non-beneficial interaction between people and plants," says Berg. "Cultural issues are often the most damaging to trees, but they are also the most correctable."
If symptoms of dieback or ill health show up in existing tree plantings, Berg suggests identifying the stress or cause of the stress, taking action to limit the symptoms and creating a system that minimizes the stress.
"Develop a philosophy that is based on science," he says. It's often cheaper to fix a potential problem before it gets started. It all starts with design and tree selection. "Get the right tree, in the right place in the right way," says Berg. He suggests planting trees in groupings, as they grow in nature, instead of as individuals, and creating a rooting area through mulching.
In altered systems, where there is construction nearby, compaction of the soil and inadequate water infiltration capacity of the soil can kill a tree over time.
Getting a tree to root properly when it is removed from a small, root-bound container is difficult, Berg says. Trees need to be planted at the correct depth. Planting trees too deep, at depths below the root area, is like a death sentence. Many problems occur later in the tree's life because they were planted too deep, Berg says. Overwatering, especially for trees planted in irrigated lawns or gardens, is also a cause of death for many established trees. They can be harmed by herbicides being sprayed on neighboring fields or lawns as well.
Young trees are often staked improperly with materials that are too tight and cause girdling of the trunk over time. Over pruning, taking more than one third of the tree's branches in a single season, is particularly harmful for young trees, Berg says.
"Sometimes people love their trees to death," he says. "People have good intentions, but follow through with incorrect management. Good cultural practices early on can prevent problems later."
For more information on proper planting of windbreaks or trees in rural settings, contact your local Natural Resource District office or Eric Berg at 402-472-6511.