Post-storm tree tips
High winds recently toppled or tilted trees, broke a number of tree branches, and in some cases exposed carpenter ant nests.
After a wind storm, it may be a difficult decision to turn a leaning tree into firewood, but this may be the safest option. The decision to remove or try and save a tree is best be determined by tree size and extent of root damage.
If a young or small tree, planted in the last five years, is leaning it could be straightened and treated like a newly planted tree. This may be successful if done immediately. If roots are exposed for an extended period of time, the tree may not be savable.
After straightening and correctly staking a small tree, cover roots with soil only to the depth the roots were originally growing. Do not place soil any deeper as this will cut off oxygen to roots and increase root loss. The top root coming off of the trunk should be just below ground level.
After covering roots, gently firm the soil to assure there are no air pockets around roots. Do not fertilize the tree, but keep the soil moist. The salts in fertilizer can damage new roots as they begin to grow. Nitrogen can promote succulent growth that may further stress the compromised root system.
A small tree that has been reset will require staking for up to two years until the root system regrows. If after one or two years, the tree still tends to lean or sway, it needs to be removed.
Large trees will typically not survive being pushed upright and staked after a storm. Those that do survive often create a hazard during the next storm because the root system is compromised. If a large tree with a trunk greater than six inches in diameter has been up-righted and staked, consider removing the tree if it is near a structure, power lines, or roadway.
If a large tree is not near anything that could be harmed or damaged if it topples again, and saving the tree is attempted, have an arborist stake and brace it correctly. Even then, the chance of success if very low with large trees.
Many broken branches have been cleaned up. After initial clean-up, take time to recheck the tree to be sure branch stubs were not left in the tree. A good pruning cut preserves the branch collar, which is close to the trunk, but does not leave a stub since dead branch stubs can lead to decay issues.
Carpenter ants may be noticed in broken branches or trunks. It is often assumed carpenter ants are to blame for weakening the tree. There is also concern about carpenter ants moving to nearby trees or homes.
Carpenter ants do not eat wood. They create nests in wood that already has a moisture or decay issue. These ants are most often a secondary issue and not the primary cause of wood damage; although their nest building will increase damage within a tree or structure.
Carpenter ants rarely invade solid, healthy wood that does not have moisture or decay issues. Removing a toppled tree or a large broken branch, along with the ant nest, may be all that is needed. While nearby trees and home foundations are sometimes treated with an insecticide, this is not necessary as it relates to tree protection; and foundation treatments are not effective in controlling carpenter ants.
For additional information on dealing with damaged trees, refer to a storm damage series from the Nebraska Forest Service found on the publications page at nfs.unl.edu.
Kelly Feehan is an extension educator at Nebraska Extension.