Landscape Services helps trees weather the winter storm

Many members of the UT Austin community experienced freeze damage to their trees during the February winter storm. Campus trees were no exception. University staff from the Landscape Services division responded to the storm and continue to assess damage and tree health. They are hopeful that most trees on campus will weather the storm impacts just fine, and they offer guidance to homeowners for caring for their own trees.

Protecting campus trees before, during and after the storm

According to Urban Forestry Supervisor Jennifer Hrobar, one key element in good tree care is proper pruning.

“Proper tree pruning is essential for many reasons but probably most important for when a winter storm hits,” Hrobar said. “Over-pruning will negatively impact a tree’s structure and its ability to support the weight of ice, snow and winds. Tree limbs can fail more frequently in trees that have not been pruned correctly, and because we take care to enforce good pruning practices, most trees on campus saw minimal large limb failures.”

Assessing tree risk is also very important, Hrobar noted. The arborists with Landscape Services continuously inspect trees for signs of decay and structural defects. This is helpful when large storms come, as trees with extensive decay and defects have a higher chance of failure in storms.

Landscape Services staff stayed on campus and also traveled to campus through most of the week the university was closed in February to address icy walkways and damaged trees.

“Some damage was immediately evident in the form of broken branches, especially on those species carrying leaves at this time of year such as live oaks, Monterey oaks, mountain laurel, cherry laurel and yaupon, as well as some smaller tree species such as huisache and paloverdes,” Hrobar said. “We have been addressing those immediate issues on campus and will continue to assess and, if needed, prune damaged limbs for quite some time, I’m sure.”

With time, it becomes apparent which trees will survive and which, if any, will not, Hrobar explained. Young trees do not have expansive root systems like their elders, but their youth makes them resilient. Cold-hardy trees such as oaks and elms will likely fare better than cold-sensitive species such as wax myrtle, citrus and Mexican olive. A location with some wind and cold protection may provide benefit.

Landscape Services look for broken limbs and stubs left in trees long after the storm. These need to be removed and proper cuts made to prevent future issues.

“Keep in mind that if freeze damage has occurred, such practices will also not be an immediate cure, and there are no miracle elixirs,” Hrobar said. “Patience and long-term care are important, and yet sometimes you still don’t win against nature. I’m remaining hopeful that most native trees on our campus and in the community will be okay.”

Homeowner do’s and don’ts for storm-related tree care

Hrobar provided the following list of do’s and don’ts related to caring for trees after a winter storm at home.

Do:

  • Maintain adequate soil moisture and encourage cultural practices that promote plant health. If possible, water young trees prior to a hard freeze.
  • Wait a few days after the hard freeze, then use a knife or thumbnail to scrape back the outer bark on young branches. Freeze-damaged areas will be brown beneath the bark; healthy tissues will be green or a healthy creamy color.
  • Delay pruning until time reveals the areas that are living or dead and until the threat of additional freezes has passed. Leaving dead limbs and foliage at the tops of plants will help protect the lower leaves and branches.
  • Hire a professional to care for your trees.

Don’t

  • Go near downed trees or limbs close to or resting on overhead wires. Treat all wires as energized and contact your local electric provider. In Austin call 311.
  • Don’t attempt to perform tree work if you’re untrained. Instead, hire an insured professional arborist with references.
  • Due to Oak Wilt, a fungal disease that is frequently fatal to oaks and spreads easily, avoid pruning oak trees from February through June in Central Texas. Trees damaged by storms can be more susceptible to Oak Wilt.
Tree from UT Campus
The February 2021 winter storm covered these live oaks on the East Mall with ice and snow.
March 2, 2021