The old elm tree in the front yard may be more like an old friend than a landscaping asset. You may remember when your children played under its branches. Or maybe your grandfather planted it when he first settled here. But time and disease have taken its toll and now the tree is dying. Your first consideration should be if the tree is a hazard to people or property. Have the tree evaluated by a professional to see if it might recover or should be removed.
Removing a tree can be costly but consider the danger and possible damage if it were to blow over during a storm. You might be tempted to only have the large dying branches removed instead of removing the tree. But often the tree will have to be removed entirely in a few more years, leaving you with two costly services instead of just one if you had removed it in the first place.
Removing a large tree should be left to professionals. Check the phone listings, usually it will be under Tree Service. If possible, check to see if they are part of an established business in the community or nearby area. Ask for current certificates of insurance showing that they are fully insured for property damage, personal liability, and worker compensation. Call the insurer for verification.
Ideally, the company should have someone on staff who is a member of a professional association such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), the National Arborist Association (NAA), or the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA). Certified arborists are trained and have access to current technical information on tree care, repair, and removal.
Don't top your trees
Untrained individuals may urge you to cut back all of the branches in the mistaken belief that reducing the length of branches will help avoid breakage in future storms. Professional arborists say that "topping" -- cutting main branches back to stubs -- is one of the worst things you can do for your trees. Stubs will tend to grow back many weakly attached branches that are even more likely to break when a storm strikes.
Some trees simply can't be saved or are not worth saving. If the tree has already been weakened by disease, if the trunk is split, or more than 50 percent of the crown is gone, the tree has lost its survival edge. Even if a storm has damaged the tree, do not top the tree. The broken branch should be pruned back to the trunk. Also, the tree will need all its resources to recover from the stress of storm damage. Topping the tree will reduce the amount of foliage, on which the tree depends for the food and nourishment needed for re-growth. A topped tree that has already sustained major storm damage is more likely to die than repair itself. At best, its recovery will be retarded and it will almost never regain its original shape or beauty.
A look to the future
Finally after the tree is removed, plant a tree for future generations. Pick a tree that will fit the location. A common mistake is to not take into account the final size of the planted tree. It can be hard to imagine that this small sapling might someday crowd into the house or interfere with utility lines.
For more information, check your local University of Missouri Extension Center for the following guides: G6867 First Aid for Storm Damaged Trees, G6866 Pruning and Care of Shade Trees and G6850 How to Plant a Tree. Or look for them at Extension's website: http://extension.missouri.edu.
REVISED: September 29, 2015