Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Train your trees to grow straight and strong

Reminders cover our yards and pile up in streets. This is leaf season in Sacramento, when our “City of Trees” drops an avalanche of used-up foliage.

As long as that’s all they drop, we’re OK. It’s when our oaks, maples and sycamores start shedding limbs that we’re in real trouble.

Limb drop can be a sign of stress, a likely side effect of too much drought for too long. But trees also lose limbs to winter winds and heavy rains that weight the branches with water. This common calamity can be headed off with foresight and preventive maintenance.

Healthy trees need more than sun and water. To reach their full potential both in size and longevity, they require something extra – “structured training.” That starts when they’re merely saplings.

“You need to prune young shade trees,” said Pamela Sanchez, a certified arborist with the Sacramento Tree Foundation. “They need ‘structured training’ from planting to 8 years old. You shape them to be strong and beautiful. You can save a lot of time and money by making simple cuts right now.”

Sanchez is among the foundation’s urban foresters who teach winter pruning clinics. These free clinics offer a wealth of information and hands-on expertise to anyone who has trees, especially the big leafy shade trees Sacramento loves.

“We go all around the region with our clinics,” Sanchez said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn how to care for young trees.”

And older trees, too. During the clinic, the group tours neighborhood park trees to see the do’s and don’ts of pruning and its consequences.

“For slightly older trees, you want to concentrate on structural stability,” Sanchez said.

In other words, make sure that tree can hold onto its branches. Does it have a strong trunk? Is it growing straight or leaning?

“The No. 1 thing people should do right now is inspect your trees,” Sanchez said. “That sounds obvious, but a lot of people might not do it.”

Often, trees tend to get ignored until they demand attention. After four years of drought, this is one of those critical moments when they really need some TLC.

“Drought can kill branches – or the whole tree,” Sanchez said. “When trees are stressed, they’re less stable. They can drop dead branches. Limbs can break. They’re extremely fragile.

“The most vulnerable trees are those hardest hit by the drought – coastal redwood, birch and red maple,” she added. “We’ve already seen a lot of those in bad shape.”

Older trees require special expertise, Sanchez noted. “(Tree care) gets complicated. That’s when you hire a certified arborist.”

The wrong cuts could kill the tree. So could benign neglect or good intentions.

For example, gardeners construct berms around trees to help water soak in without running off, Sanchez noted. That’s great in summer, but not in winter.

“We’re expecting a lot of extra water with El Niño this winter,” she said. “You don’t want that water standing at the base of your tree; it can cause crown rot. Break holes through those berms or remove them.”

If the rains don’t come, remember young trees need regular irrigation, Sanchez added. “Winter irrigation is very important to young trees. Most saplings need 10 to 15 gallons a week. Check the soil for moisture to make sure they’re getting enough.”

And still remember to mulch, she said. A water saver in summer, mulch also helps in winter.

“Mulch insulates the soil from cold,” Sanchez said. “And it has another plus: It prevents weeds.”

Pruning clinics

The Sacramento Tree Foundation offers free two-hour pruning clinics, concentrating on the care of young shade trees. Advance registration is required at Clinics are set for:

▪ 10 a.m. Dec. 12, Carmichael Library

▪ 2 p.m. Jan. 9, North Highlands Library

▪ 10 a.m. Jan. 23, Folsom Library

For more details, click on or call 916-924-8733.