Trunk damage can girdle trees

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By Jeneen Wiche

The farm looks like a storm hit recently, but it’s really just my husband’s new deer deterrent technique.  It seems to be working.

In the past we have forgone the Irish Spring soap, human hair and coyote urine for more reliable barriers.  Tomato cages, tobacco stakes, wire, spiral plastic trunk wrap, and, yes, an occasional arrangement of lawn chairs have created distance between rutting and browsing deer. 

This year seems to be the worst ever so our anxiety was high after the New Year.  We planted half a dozen new trees for the occasion, all of which are prime targets to the family that slumbers in one of our unmowed fields and grazes fruit beneath the dozen crabapples coming up the drive.

I like the family, but they are killing our trees.

Their hunger sometimes rips trees from the ground; other times they just do a sloppy pruning job.  Their rutting is the worst as the males practice their battle moves on the small trunks of young trees, scraping the bark clean off.

If only one side is damaged, we wait; if the entire circumference is gone, then we have learned to remove it and move on.  They never recover, no matter how patient we are.

When the bark and cambium layer of a tree is removed all the way around then the tree is essentially girdled.  No movement of moisture or nutrients will pass the wound. 

So our new technique to protect trees (because we have run out of all the other devices previously mentioned) is to pile broken branches, twigs and this year’s Christmas tree boughs around the base of the trunk.

We prop some against the trunk and lay the rest around the base to create somewhat of a cattle guard.  So far, so good, but it does look funny.

Even if you don’t have deer pressure in the garden there are other circumstances that can result in a similar girdling effect.

Rodents chewing the bark off at the base of the trunk can result in dieback.  When trees are girdled at the base like this, they sometimes sucker from the roots.

If the roots are well-established and healthy then I would train one of the suckers as a new main leader; but this time put some wrap or barrier around the base.

When using conventional tree wrap it is important to remove it in the spring.

Oddly enough, a southwestern exposure during the winter can cause some damage.  Sun scald is common during winters when the temperature fluctuates dramatically night and day.

A frigid night followed by a warmish, sunny day causes the bark to split open.  If there is a elongated split on the southwest side (where the sun is) then you likely have a case of sunscald.

A healthy tree can compartmentalize the wound and heal; but trees under stress may find that one more injury is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tree wrap and plastic spirals can offset sunscald but, again, remember to remove the protection in the spring.

Girdling of roots can also cause problems for a tree, but this damage takes place beneath the soil, where we can’t see the problem.  In fact, trees that are planted too deep (which are probably the majority) have a higher incidence of girdled roots; and container grown trees may develop girdle roots in the pot.

So when you plant a tree, check the roots thoroughly for any roots that appear to be wrapped around the base of the trunk or other roots. Do not be afraid to cut these roots away even if they seem larger then the other roots.