Caring for your Trees

By Nancy Moffett

“Trees properly placed around buildings can reduce air conditioning needs by 30 percent and can save 20-50 percent in energy used for heating.” – USDA Forest Service

“Landscaping, especially with trees, can increase property values as much as 20 percent.” – Management Information Services/International City/County Management Association (ICMA)

Most of the time, we take trees for granted. Living in our sylvan state, where even the name means “Penn’s Woods,” we tend to forget how much trees contribute to our surroundings and our well being. It’s important to know how to care for the trees on your property and when to call for professional help.

Josh Malik, owner of Joshua Tree, agrees. “Many people don’t understand the importance of good trees,” he says, “and that caring for a healthy tree is easier than correcting problems.” The key to preventing problems is regular maintenance. If you see dead wood on a tree, call a professional immediately. Mature trees ideally should be checked once a year for leaf/bud formation, twig growth, leaf size and to make sure the crown is healthy. The most common procedure needed is pruning. Shawn Cressman, president of Cressman’s Lawn & Tree Care, says if a tree’s crown is too thick, it’s in danger of wind and ice damage. “You need to lighten the weight of the tree to allow more wind and sunlight to get through. Thinning prevents limbs from breaking and hitting your house,” he explains. If a tree is getting too big for the spot, the best thing to do is to have a certified arborist make a plan to reduce its size.

“Proper pruning can be done almost any time of year, not just in spring and fall,” Malik explains. Tighe Nostrand, owner of Friendly Tree Service, says even winter is a good time for tree trimming. “Our busy times are spring and fall, but we also work through the winter when leaves are off the trees and we can better see the limb structure.”

Nostrand says you need to find a balance between your goals and what’s right for your trees. The last resort is to remove a healthy tree. Malik, Nostrand and Cressman all agree that the worst thing to do with an overgrown tree is to top it. Topping is cutting branches back to stubs and removing up to 100 percent of the tree’s crown. This practice stresses the tree. To survive, it rapidly puts out multiple shoots that are not well anchored and easily break off.  The end result of topping may be a diseased, ugly tree that ultimately must be removed.

Trees have a vascular system, just as humans do. Live tissue under the bark transports food from the leaves down to the roots and carries water from the roots up to the leaves. Cressman says a healthy tree may not need a lot of attention, but testing the soil under the tree can indicate whether it is getting enough nutrients. Mulching puts nutrients back into the soil, Nostrand explains, but it must be done correctly. Piling mulch up around the base of the tree (volcano mulching) does more harm than good, as roots may grow up into the mulch to “girdle” the tree, while moisture against the bark encourages funguses and rot. Mulch should be no more than 2” to 4” deep and can be spread out to the “drip line” (where the outer edge of the branches overhang the ground), but never placed against the tree’s bark. This method helps control weeds and grass, regulate temperature and hold in moisture, Nostrand points out.

If a soil test shows the tree needs extra nutrients, Cressman says fertilization will give it a boost, like taking vitamins. Depending on the tree’s size, fertilizer may be injected directly into it or into the soil around the perimeter to reach the fine feeder roots that circulate it into the tree. The time to fertilize is in spring or fall, he explains – not during dry summers–when ground moisture allows the tree to absorb the nutrients.

Water is another vital element for healthy trees, says Cressman. “You need to water even big trees during a drought.” But don’t water at the tree’s base. Place sprinklers on the lawn out at the perimeter to reach those feeder roots.” New trees especially need watering as they have fewer feeder roots for the first few years.

How do you know if one of your trees is in trouble? Malik says if you see discolored leaves or needles that are dropping early or being eaten, the tree may have an insect or fungus infestation. “Insects can kill a tree very quickly,” he says. So it’s vital to get it diagnosed and treated immediately.

What about do-it-yourself tree care? Clearing low-hanging limbs is something homeowners may be able to do themselves. Cressman recommends researching proper cutting on the Internet before attempting this task. Nostrand says don’t try to cut anything you can’t reach from the ground. People get hurt working off of ladders. “Anything out of reach, call a pro,” he emphasizes. “Tree care is not a do-it-yourself project.”

Nostrand, Malik and Cressman all recommend calling in the pros periodically to have your trees evaluated and cared for. They also recommend using a company that has International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborists on staff, as they do. The Society’s website,, allows tree owners to search for certified arborists and also offers information on trees and tree care.


Cressman’s Lawn & Tree Care
1287 Spring Valley Road
Bethlehem, PA 18015

Friendly Tree Service
88 Cedar Road
Bangor, PA 18013

Joshua Tree
310 Center Street
Stockertown, PA 18083

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