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Why do branches, trees fall during storms?

Drought played factor in Sacramento's recent big mess

Tree cleanup
City crews clean up fallen branches in Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood Wednesday. (Photo: Debbie Arrington)

After last week’s big winter storm, big branches (and sometimes whole trees) littered landscapes and streets throughout the Sacramento area. (Mine included.)

City crews and residents were still cleaning up the mess when more wind and rain threatened to bring down more limbs – or worse.

In the aftermath, we wonder: What happened? Was it too much wind? Or rain? Or both?

While the wild weather played a key role, two other factors set damaged trees up for problems: Drought and improper pruning.

Years of drought have significantly weakened the roots of many big trees, particularly large conifers (such as redwoods or firs) as well as elms and birches (one of Sacramento’s favorite lawn trees). Drought literally shrinks a tree’s rootball, so they have less support to hold them upright. Other trees never had a good anchor in the first place.

Used to shallow watering from sprinklers, solitary “lawn trees” may never develop those strong deep roots. Just under the surface of the turf, lawn trees’ roots are further weakened during drought when lawn irrigation is cut back.

Prolonged drought also causes tree dieback and dead or weakened branches. Those are the first to fall during a windstorm.

But even well-hydrated trees – especially evergreens – can topple over under the right conditions: Saturated soil and big gusts of wind.

Broken tree
This street tree in a Carmichael neighborhood snapped near
the base and fell into a park during the recent storm.
(Photo: Kathy Morrison)


During winter, conifers – redwood, pine, fir, spruce, yew, juniper, cypress and their cousins – tend to be at greatest risk. These evergreen trees retain their foliage year-round and can become top-heavy. When it rains, those needles become saturated with water, holding extra weight on a tree’s branches. That foliage also catches the wind like a huge sail.

In the forest, redwoods and other evergreens grow close together; their roots intertwine and help hold each other up. But in the suburban landscape, these big trees often are planted alone, without that extra support.

How a tree is pruned also can weaken its structure. According to the Sacramento Tree Foundation, a common evergreen problem is “lion tailing”; the foliage is pruned off near the trunk, leaving clumps of leaves at the end of limbs. The result looks like a lion’s tail. But when it rains, that places most of the weight at the end of the branch, making it prone to breakage.

With more rain and wind expected next week, now is the time to assess the damage – and maybe bring in a professional arborist.

Be careful of trees that may be leaning. If cracks appear in the ground around a tree’s base, stay away – that’s a major danger sign. Put up barrier tape to keep people from walking around it and call an expert.

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Dig In: Garden Checklist for week of April 7

The warm wave coming this week will shift weeds into overdrive. Get to work!

* Weed, weed, weed! Whack them before they flower.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden is really hungry. Feed shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash. Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias. Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom. April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce and cabbage seedlings.

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