These common pitfalls hurt trees more than they help. Here's what to do instead.

By Rachael Baihn
April 27, 2020
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Chances are, most of the yards in your neighborhood have at least one tree. Trees are beautiful to look at, they boost your curb appeal, and they provide relief from the heat. In fact, the shade from just one tree can reduce surface temperatures by as much as 45°F, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In return for everything that our tall, leafy friends do for us, it's important for us to help keep them healthy. Often the best way to take care of trees is to do less, not more—especially when it comes to these common mistakes.

Credit: Andy Lyons

1. Stop Making ‘Mulch Volcanoes’

A layer of mulch around your trees helps protect them from mower blades and prevents soil from drying out. But piling it up like a volcano around your tree traps moisture against the trunk, which can cause rot. Additionally, when mulch is too deep, it prevents tree roots from getting the oxygen they need. "Always mulch out and not up," says Daniel S. Bauer, an arborist and president of Arbor Equity Inc. He recommends using a hardwood mulch, which will slowly break down and provide some nutrients to the soil. Just keep your mulch layer to a depth of 2–3 inches.

2. Don't Use Pruning Paint

Pruning trees and shrubs promotes the plants’ health, but skip the pruning paint. You may have seen products that say they help seal the cuts left behind, but actually, they seal in fungi and bacteria that can cause disease. They also make it harder for trees to naturally seal off their wounds. Plus, most tree wound sealers are petroleum-based, which isn't exactly great for living tissue. "Would you use it to treat a cut on your own skin?" asks Linda Chalker-Scott, a professor and horticulturist at Washington State University. "If the idea repels you, carry that feeling over to plant health care," she advises.

3. Avoid Topping Your Trees

A too-tall tree can cause problems with electrical lines, or it might be outgrowing its space. However, reducing a tree’s size by indiscriminately lopping off large branches, or topping, is not the answer. This can stress out the plant enough to kill it and exposes it to disease, decay, and damage from sun or insects. Any smaller branches that grow in to fill the space left by topping are more likely to break during storms. Properly and safely pruning large trees away from power lines is best done by a trained arborist. And if a tree no longer fits the location, it's better to remove it entirely and plant a better variety for the site, Bauer says.

4. Quit Staking Young Trees

Newly planted saplings occasionally need help to stand up straight, but in most cases, staking is not necessary. Trees need to move and sway in the breeze to help them grow strong roots and trunks, and lashing the trunk to a stake or wire prevents that natural movement.  "When the stakes are removed (if they ever are), the lack of trunk and root development makes these trees prime candidates for breakage or blow-down," Chalker-Scott says. If you must stake in a high-wind area that's okay, but set a calendar reminder to remove stakes or guy wires six months after installing. Staking too long, too high, and too tight are leading causes of tree damage.

Most importantly, don’t skip the love and attention, says Bauer, who points out that trees are not “set it and forget it” plants. With regular watering, careful pruning, and taking measures to prevent insect damage, your trees will thrive for decades to come.

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