Out on a Limb in Alexandria

Caring for Alexandria’s trees in winter.

Cold snaps, a weather phenomena common to the east coast, can leave a lot of residents confused. Is it t-shirt or heavy coat weather? Sometimes it changes midway through the day. But as frustrating as it can be for humans, arborist Steve Nagy and assistant district manager for The Care of Trees, says it can be just as confusing for local trees.

“In the mid-atlantic region, we never know what the weather is going to be like,” said Nagy.

“If you have a real cold snap, like we did, trees come out of their dormant period and you can get frost damage if trees come out with leaves.”

For residents with yards and trees, Nagy said it’s important to maintain care for the trees over the winter months. Nagy says for smaller trees, like pine trees, Bradford pears, and tiny elms, be aware that heavy winds and ice can cause these trees to break apart and even damage the home.

“These trees tend to break apart under heavy loads,” said Nagy. “They break apart, fall on houses and screened-in porches. An arborist will be able to come out and say ‘you can probably brace these limbs’ or ‘they may be able to cut back and reduce the weight on overextended limbs.’”

For the larger trees around Arlington, he said these are mostly tulips and oaks, Nagy says it’s important to have these trees inspected.

“Have an arborist come out and look for defects on larger limbs,” said Nagy. “Last year, we had that oddball snowstorm in April. The trees, if it’s a steady kind of mild winter, they don’t dry out on the inside. The cells are holding onto that moisture. Then, when you get a sudden drop in temperature, you get cracking. Younger, thinner trees will split and crack. That’s rapid expansion of those shrinking cells. Then you have a crack that runs vertical, and that leads to decay. It will heal, then it will wound again, opening and closing, like picking at a scab. That can ruin a nice, small ornamental tree.”

Nagy says removing dead limbs can be a vital part of keeping these types of trees in a healthy condition. Even in winter, Nagy said an arborist can identify which of the limbs is dead.

Remove dead limbs, that enforces the tree to put its energy elsewhere rather than reinforce a broken stud or limb. An arborist can identify larger dead limbs.

John Noelle, arborist for the City of Alexandria, also said that many people in the region hesitate to do tree care in the winter because they can’t tell which branches are alive or dead.

“If you’re pruning a small tree, it’s fairly easy to tell which of the limbs or branches are alive,” said Noelle. “Take your thumbnail or a knife and scrape a twig. If it’s green underneath, then it’s alive.”

Noelle also said the presence of buds on twigs is another way of telling which tree limbs are alive.

For maintaining year-round tree care, Noelle said it’s important to mulch trees, but doing it improperly can have disastrous effects.

“Just spread one or two inches,” said Noelle. “A big problem we have around here is when people put too much mulch down or put it all up against the trunk of the tree; volcano mulching. That happens a lot around here and that’s bad for the tree.”

Noelle and Nagy emphasized that it’s important for local tree owners to keep up their care for their trees throughout the winter months.

“Despite concerns about whether you can tell if branches are alive or dead, it’s a great time to have your larger trees pruned,” said Noelle. “It’s a great time to engage tree companies. They’re looking for work, so the prices might be a little better and they will be able to tell which branches are alive or dead.”

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