How to Fix a Splitting Tree

Have you ever gone down to do the splits and not be able to get yourself back up without help? Well, trees with structural deficiencies can actually split in a similar manner. Two arms of a trunk may stretch wide during a wind event, but they can't pull themselves back together afterward. The typical split we see is like this one below, with the drill and drill bit through the trunk.

A typical tree split.

A typical tree split.

To fix a splitting tree, we apply structural support in the form of cabling or bracing. This hackberry split about 7' up from the ground and we are drilling two holes through the trunk so we can install threaded rods to hold the split together. It's not an easy task. In the above photo, we are using a 4' long drill bit and a drill that weighs around 15 pounds. The hardest part is when the drill bit gets completely stuck in the tree! Its happens too often and can be a scary moment. 

This is what it looks after the rod has been installed and tightened. Notice that the crack has closed! That is not always the result, but is pretty satisfying when it does happen. 

This is what it looks after the rod has been installed and tightened. Notice that the crack has closed! That is not always the result, but is pretty satisfying when it does happen. 

Here is a good profile shot of the two rods with the washers and nuts on the end. One of the braces goes through near the top of the split and the other is installed around 20" above the lower brace. The braces are around 30-35" long from end to end. The rods are cut as close to the trunk as possible and then the ends are pounded with a hammer to prevent the nut from backing off.

Side view of the two braces after installation.

Side view of the two braces after installation.

In most normal tree repairs to a split trunk, the work does not stop at the brace. The top of the tree is where all the leverage happens, and it also requires support in the form of a static steel cable. This cable helps to hold the tree crown together, reducing the forces being placed on the brace, and helps to hold the tree together.

Static steel cable to hold the top together and reduce forces being placed on the truck on the tree.

Static steel cable to hold the top together and reduce forces being placed on the truck on the tree.

The last picture shows a detail of a brace in a different tree, viewed from above. This brace is about 6 feet long and required lots of effort from many people to get installed. It was well worth it, for this tree a heritage burr oak on Lakeside in Madison. A truly incredible specimen, the back side of this tree was split and had been split for some time. We had to install two cables to hold the top together and then put two super long braces through the trunks.

Top view of two 6 foot long braces in a heritage burr oak

Top view of two 6 foot long braces in a heritage burr oak

Each time we do a brace there is a challenge that pops up. These challenges probably explain why this is an underutilized application. Cutting the branch off is usually easier, but often is not what is best for the tree.

In both the above trees, there was no decay present so the bolts and cables replaced the wood that is supposed to hold the trunks together. The combination of bracing and cabling can stabilize a split tree and be an alternative to tree removal. Unlike the braces on a teenager, tree braces and cables are permanent

Please Hold the Salt!

Road salt is very effective at clearing ice from roadways and walks, but plants bear the brunt of the leftovers. Once the salts dissolves, it infiltrates the soil, creating a salty mess.  

In the photo below are two black walnuts situated at the end of a parking lot. You can see the snow piles at the base of each tree and the salt-coated parking lot. The customer called because there have been dead branches falling from the trees. I looked at the trees after all the leaves were off and thought it would be a straightforward canopy cleaning... remove a few dead branches for safety.

Notice how white the parking lot is!

Notice how white the parking lot is!

Once we climbed up into the trees it became clear that salt was slowing killing these trees. Most of the branches in the upper canopy had dead tips. The branch tip is where the most vigorous growth occurs, and they were dying off. The salt build up in the soil was actually preventing the tree from transporting water to the tips of the tree. 

If you do a quick internet search, you will find the many ways that salt harm woody plants.  The biggest reason is salt’s ability to prevent plants from absorbing or taking up water, also known as physiological drought.  Salt spray along roadsides is another common form of salt damage. The spray coats the dormant buds and essentially burns them, killing the buds or slowing their growth.

When using salt on your property:

  • Use salt sparingly and clean up large spills or piles.
  • Mix some sand into your salt to “stretch” the salt out bit more.
  • Avoid piling snow with lots of salt on the root zone of trees and shrubs.
  • Protect valuable plants with physical barriers to keep salt off of foliage and out of root zone.

Resources for preventing salt damage or minimizing it:

•    Plant salt tolerant varieties of trees and shrubs. This is really good!
•    If you have a pile of salt-laden snow at the base of your tree or shrub that you want to protect, you can flush the soil out with water before bud-break once the ground has thawed. Basically you would have to flood the root zone to purge all the built-up salts present.
•    Use only sand or familiarize yourself with an ice scraper. My dad can attest to my extensive use of this tool as a kid, so I could shoot hoops all winter outside.

There is a lot of good info on the web about salt and the damage it can inflict on plants and trees. This is a only a starter to get you thinking about it.  Educate yourself and others on the consequences of salt, so as a community we can keep our canopy as healthy as possible.

Follow the links below for further reading on the impacts of salt on our Dane County our drinking supplies and waterways.

Give Your Autumn Blaze a Hug Up Top

So as proof that we can learn and advance our skills, with great pride I want to show you our newest technique for cabling some autumn blaze maples. Cameron of Lundin Tree Care was not super impressed when I told him about our new technique. “I’ve been doing it that way for a while now.”  Well, I'm glad we caught up!

Anyways, you can see the four sides of the cable that form a basket or loop in the upper 1/3 of the tree. We are moving towards this style because so often the tops of these type of maple are loaded with vertical growing trunks. Putting a basket around all the trunks helps to prevent any of them failing during a storm event. The conventional way would be to install cables between two trunks. Autumn blaze is notorious for many, many trunks (leaders) which means lots of cables going between the many leaders.

Installing the basket around all of the leaders solves this problem and protects the entire center of the tree. It might not be completely visible in the photo, but we did do a pretty extensive train prune on the tree before installing the basket. The last reason that this technique works is because the tree is relatively small at this point. In ten years the tree will be much bigger/taller and require a different system to hold it together.


Bare Root Tree Planting versus B&B

This article distills our years of tree planting experience to illustrate the differences between bare root and “balled and burlapped” (aka “B&B") tree planting techniques. 

Bare Root Planting

Planting a tree in the "bare root" style is very literal. If you look at the below photo, you'll see the tree is all plant: no soil included in the root mass, only roots and the trunk.

Bare root trees are generally light and easy for one person to pick up.

Balled and Burlapped Planting (aka "B&B")

The alternative to bare root planting is the a "B&B tree," which stands for balled and burlapped. The roots are enclosed in a ball of soil with a burlap bag and wire basket around the ball.  This is the more conventional approach to planting trees, but requires more digging (typically using heavy equipment) to move the trees due to the shear weight of the soil.  Below is a photo of a red bud tree with the burlap and basket removed for planting.

Balled and burlapped trees are HEAVY and must be moved by machine. More work, more $$$.

Now that you can picture the difference between the two options, let's discuss the pros and cons of each. 


Pros of Bare Root Planting

  • Can be planted by hand (very light)

  • Less expensive

  • Correct planting depth every time

  • Planted with a larger root mass intact

  • Quicker establishment of tree in relation to B&B

Cons of Bare Root Planting

  • Limit on available species of trees

  • Limit on size to 2” diameter trees


Pros of B&B Planting

  • No limit on trunk size of tree transplanted

  • No limit on available species of trees

Cons of B&B Planting

  • Heavy, often requiring equipment

  • Can be planted too deep

  • More expensive v. bare root

  • Majority of roots are removed


Root Growth an Important Consideration

The photos below highlight some of the important advantages and disadvantages of each planting method, focused particularly on differences in root growth between the two methods.

This swamp white oak died a year after it was planted 4-5" too deep.

This swamp white oak died a year after it was planted 4-5" too deep.


This photo above is the root system from a 3” caliper (trunk) swamp white oak that died the first year after transplant.  Notice the tape around the trunk? That was the planting depth, you can see the root flare (where roots meet the trunk) was around 4 - 5” buried.  Also notice how small the root system is (approximately 16” across) for a tree that large.

Compare the previous root system with the root system of the bare root tree below.  This is a 2” sugar maple that was planted later that day.  This root system is exceptionally wide and is not the norm, but it does show you just how many roots that swamp white oak that died above lost in the transplant process.       

Sugar maple sapling with 6-foot-long roots.

Sugar maple sapling with 6-foot-long roots.

The last series of photos show the planting process when a B&B tree is planted too deep at the nursery.  This series features a 5-6’ red bud I planted last spring on a playground.  The first shot is of the root ball exposed and in the hole.  The next one shows the trunk partially excavated to expose the root flare or proper planting height.  The third photo has a 7-8” tall wire cutters in the shot to show you just how deep this tree was, the top of the wire cutters represents the original soil height and the bottom shows the final planting height.

2015-04-25 15.37.25.jpg
2015-04-25 15.39.12.jpg


I don't want to discourage people from buying B&B trees, but I do want to educate people on potential downfalls of getting a B&B tree and just “plopping” it in a hole.  If you are contracting tree planting, make sure that the company knows how to plant trees correctly.  Planting depth will dictate the long-term survivability and vitality of your tree.  

I encourage people to consider bare root trees for their future planting projects. Either way you can’t go wrong planting trees, just make sure it's done correctly so the benefits will outlive us all.

Planting Depth: Give Your Tree the Flare it Needs!

Root Depth Affects Tree Health

Have you ever noticed a tree that looks like a pencil stuck in the ground while walking down the street?  Here in Madison these trees are not hard to find, just try looking around next time you are out walking around.

But how many trees in the forest look like pencils stuck in the ground?  None. They all have formidable root flares, where the trunk gets wide and meets the soil line.  From that soil line to 12 inches down is where you will find most tree roots. The roots stay close to the surface in order to facilitate oxygen exchange essential for the tree’s survival. 

This is how a forest-grown tree looks. Note how the trunk flares to the roots well above the soil line.

This is how a forest-grown tree looks. Note how the trunk flares to the roots well above the soil line.

Now imagine throwing a 6” layer of soil over the top of the forest floor, drastically cutting the oxygen supply to the trees. This is essentially what happens when we plant trees too deeply.  Not only do we cut off most of the root system (to facilitate transport and planting) during the digging, now we stuck the tree in the ground too deep to get the necessary oxygen. Good luck arborlito, it's going to be tough!

The following discussion addresses planting depth and what to look for when you are doing it yourself or reviewing others' work. I have no problem looking over someone’s shoulder when we are talking about the future of our urban canopy.  Please read this and other discussions on tree planting to get a full and comprehensive understanding of how to complete the task correctly.  I’m trying to emphasize the most important step of planting here, planting depth.

How to Determine Proper Root Depth When Planting a Tree

When planting with b&b (balled and burlapped) or container sapling stock, the first step is to locate the root flare (where the trunk get wider, near the bottom). Don’t assume the root flare is just below the soil surface; I have found flares as deep as 8” below the soil line in some balled and burlaped trees! Once you locate the flare, dig your hole accordingly. Please remember not to dig too deep!  If in doubt, err toward making the hole too shallow.  

Carefully place the tree in the hole. We almost always remove the entire basket and burlap material, but this takes practice and care. If you want to remove everything, just make sure not to disturb the root ball, as you don’t want to loosen the soil around the roots. If the root ball is already pretty soft or loose, don’t take the basket off. 

NO: The "pencil in the ground" look - a result of planting a tree too deeply.

NO: The "pencil in the ground" look - a result of planting a tree too deeply.

YES: Proper planting depth makes trees look like this in the end.

YES: Proper planting depth makes trees look like this in the end.


Now you are ready to skim off the excess soil to expose the root flare.  I like to use tools intended for other purposes here.  My favorite tool is hand pruners for peeling soil away, maybe because I always have one nearby. Be careful not to skim off the bark of the roots; you won’t kill the tree if you do some light damage, but no damage is, of course, ideal. If the soil is really hard and difficult to remove, try adding some water. Spraying SOME water might help loosen the soil a bit... at a minimum you will get really dirty and appear to be working hard!

Now you are ready to backfill the hole, making sure not to cover the flare with any soil or mulch.  Put down a 2-4” layer of mulch around the tree, right up to the root flare. Continuous mulching, year after year, tends to build up around the trunk, so keep the flare clear of soil and mulch as time goes on.

Correct planting depth is crucial for long-term vitality and healthy trees. Planting trees too deeply leads to many issues, such as decreased growth rates, slower establishment after transplant, girdling roots, and ultimately a tree removal bill due to the shortened life span. Give your tree some flare, and your attention will be well rewarded. We think the tree looks better like that anyways!

Autumn Blaze Maples: A Beautiful, Fragile Tree That Needs Regular Care

The Autumn Blaze maple tree is a hybrid species comprised of half red maple and half silver maple. The combination has been popular for 20 years in commercial and residential plantings thanks to the combination of gorgeous fall color and rapid growth - exactly what homeowners are seeking.  In addition, the Autumn Blaze is very hardy and can withstand a wide range of climatic conditions.

The big drawback of the Autumn Blaze maple is its structural weakness. The tree tends to crack easily at branch unions, which leads to broken branches and property damage after even mild storms. To avoid problems with Autumn Blaze maple trees, property owners must invest in regular tree care.

Maintaining autumn blaze maples requires regular pruning every 3 to 5 years.  Regular pruning helps keep the structure of the tree sound and prevent some of the issues discussed/illustrated below. I planted an Autumn Blaze at my parent’s house 15 years ago and I prune it every year! My dad is always amazed at how much wood I remove from the tree on a yearly basis.

The two major maintenance issues for this tree deal with the roots and the canopy.  For a discussion on roots and root zones check out some of our other blogs related to that topic. We will discuss canopy management below.

Canopy Maintenance Prevents Broken Branches

If an Autumn Blaze maple tree has been in your landscape for more than five to tens years without any structural or upper canopy pruning, please contact a certified arborist ASAP because these trees require regular pruning.  I’m not exaggerating here, they really do need regular care in order to stay in your landscape long-term. Unmaintained trees develop weak branch attachments (cracks) prone to failure, which ultimately can mean losing the entire tree.

The lowest branches on this tree have strong, circular, horizontal unions.

Past the first few limbs (at left), this tree's unions are deep, vertically-oriented V's. Notice how every union has a vertical crack extending down from the bottom point of the branch union? This is trouble waiting to happen.

This blog features a 14” diameter Autumn Blaze maple that has been growing for 15+ years (see below photos). Since the upper canopy has never been pruned, all its major branch unions (where they connect to the trunk) have developed significant cracks due to included bark. Included bark is bark wedged between a v-shaped branch union of co-dominant stems. In the photos above, the lower branches have strong open unions, while the upper branches that look like v's have included bark. These are branches are most susceptible to high-wind branch failure, also know as sail effect. So this tree needs some extra TLC in the form of dynamic support cables. The cables provide extra support for the weak v-shaped branch unions that are synonymous with Autumn Blaze maple trees.

Reduction Cuts Reduce Canopy Load

With this particular tree we will reduce (shorten) branches competing with the central trunk in order to encourage the central trunk or leader to assume the dominant position in the tree (see below photos). By reducing competing leaders you minimize the risk of branch failure and redirect energy from those branches by removing live tissue.

Before pruning. Notice there is no clear central trunk.

After pruning. Reduction cuts have significantly decreased leaf load in the entire tree and limited competition for leaders, encouraging the central trunk to become clear and dominant.

After pruning. Reduction cuts have significantly decreased leaf load in the entire tree and limited competition for leaders, encouraging the central trunk to become clear and dominant.

Can you believe this much pruned wood came out of this Autumn Blaze? It's difficult to tell from the before-and-after, but it's a lot of wood!

Dynamic Support Cables

This tree is very consistent in terms of (poor) form; without regular pruning from the time of planting it is almost certain to have structural problems. Because this tree had not been previously pruned, it requires more than just pruning; dynamic support cables will be necessary to provide extra support for the weak unions described above. These support cables are permanent fixtures in the tree. Please read Support Systems for more information on dynamic cabling.

Brent adds two dynamic support cables in this Autumn Blaze maple tree to help prevent the trunks from cracking under leaf and wind stresses.

The dynamic cables are placed in the upper canopy and are not very noticeable from the ground.  They will provide added support for the tree making it more likely to withstand heavy weather events throughout the year.  Now that the tree is pruned and the cables are installed it you can enjoy its ever-expanding shade and wonderful fall color.