How to Care for Your Tree

Tender love and care

Just as a pet needs food and exercise, a car needs gas and service, or a house needs paint and maintenance, a tree requires ongoing care. Left to its own devices, a tree may become susceptible to drought, disease, pests, or other environmental hazards. Developing a plan of care for a newly planted tree will give it the best opportunity to thrive.

Proper tree care consists of watering, mulching and pruning. Love your trees, and they will love you back.


Georgia regularly experiences drought, and experts warn that many trees will die if they don’t regularly receive water. Most people do not think about watering big trees on their property, but it is important, and losing mature trees on your property due to the effects of drought can have many consequences, including:

  • Up to 15% decrease in residential property value
  • Increased cooling expenses (due to a loss of shade)
  • Removal fees of up to $1,000 per dead tree

But What About Watering Restrictions?

If you live in a community with a limited watering schedule, you should consider using recycled water for your trees. Recycled water may be collected in rain barrels, in buckets while you shower or heat up bath water, from your outdoor air conditioning condensation pipe, from dehumidifiers, from leftover bags of ice after a party, or in the sink while you are washing your dishes. Don’t worry, trees don’t mind a little soap (thought bio-degradable soap is best)! Be creative, and think about all of the water you use each day that might be re-used for trees.

When to Water? Late Evening and Early Morning

The best time to water trees is in the late evening and early morning. Over 50% of water can be lost to evaporation when watering during mid-day. Repeat: over 50% of water can be lost to evaporation when watering during mid-day. Trees uptake water during the night when it is cool, and this is also when the soil is most absorbent. Most counties that do allow outdoor watering, prefer you to limit watering between 12:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. To find more info on water restrictions, visit UGA’s College of Argricultural & Environmental Science.

How Often to Water?
 Every week during the growing season

Do not water every night. Trees benefit more from watering deeply once a week. Check to make sure the soil is dry before you water again.

How Much? Thoroughly

Water slowly but generously, so that water thoroughly penetrates the soil to about 1-foot deep (this is where the tree’s absorbing roots are located). Watering for short periods of time only encourages shallow rooting, which can lead to more drought damage.

Where? Under the Tree
Although tree roots extend far beyond the drip-line (the ground area beneath the furthermost edge of the tree branches), the most efficient watering method involves concentrating the water from the drip line to within three feet of the base.

What Else? Use Mulch

Mulch slows water loss from the soil due to evaporation and helps to prevent water run-off. See the mulching section for more information.


What is mulch?

Mulch is a material used as a ground cover. Mulch can be inorganic (lava rocks, gravel, etc) or organic (wood chips, pine straw, bark, etc). Trees Atlanta recommends using organic mulch.

Why Use Mulch?

  1. Mulch helps maintain soil moisture. It keeps water from evaporating quickly so the tree has time to suck it up with its roots.
  2. Mulch prevents the soil surface from crusting over, so rain water can infiltrate and reach tree roots.
  3. Mulch regulates soil temperature. Without a layer of insulation, soil temperatures can rise over 100 degrees in the summertime. High temperatures can kill roots.
  4. Mulch holds down weeds. Lawn mowers and weed-whackers are a young tree’s enemies! Wounds caused by lawn mower/tree collision or weed-whackers create openings for diseases and pests.
  5. Organic mulch eventually breaks down and adds organic material back into the soil. And we all know urban soil could use more organic material. Organic material helps create soil texture and provides nutrients necessary for the tree to live. (That said, Trees Atlanta does not recommend adding organic material like compost to your trees; they don’t need it and it could contribute to rot, etc.)
  6. Mulch helps prevent soil compaction by distributing compression weight. Soil compacts due to being walked or driven on, among other things. Soil in this state does not contain enough space for the water or oxygen that a tree needs.
  7.  Mulch helps prevent soil erosion by slowing down water flow and holding it in place for longer.

When to Mulch?
Maintain the mulch around your trees year-round to ensure that they always have enough. It is especially important during the summer when water can be scarce.

How to Mulch?

  1. Remove weeds/grass that grow close to the tree trunk.
  2. Use organic mulch such as wood chips, pine straw, tree bark, or leaves (Trees Atlanta does not recommend that the use of Cypress mulch – click here for some facts).
  3. Spread mulch 2-3 inches deep under the entire canopy of the tree. If you make your mulch too deep, water could sit in the mulch and not infiltrate the soil (click here for more information on over-mulching). Though you want to be careful not to over-mulch, be sure not to spread your mulch too shallow, because that will not help hold down weeds or hold in moisture.
  4. Pull mulch 4 inches away from the base of the tree. Do not let mulch pile up around the base of the tree as this could cause the young, thin bark to rot. You should still be able to see the root flare you left exposed when planting the tree.


Pruning a tree is a combination of aethetics, scientific technique, and common sense. All pruning comes from simple principles that must be understood before any activity takes place. Because every cut you make has the potential to change the growth of the tree, make sure you know why you are doing it, and have a plan, before you cut. When in doubt, consult with a professional arborist.

Trees Atlanta does not recommend any unqualified person to prune a tree, for trees are living beings and improper pruning can permanently damage, or even kill, a tree. 

The information on this page is for educational purposes, and is listed as a resource for those who have attended Trees Atlanta’s Pruning 101 series. Class dates and times are featured in our volunteer emails when they are in session.Remember the following principles before you begin pruning any tree:Think it through. Every cut you make has the potential to change the growth of the tree. Before you cut, know why you are doing it.Prune correctly. You must always use proper technique. Understand where and how to make cuts before you act.

Poor pruning can cause permanent damage to the tree.Trees can’t heal. When a tree is wounded, a callus must grow over the wound. Trees will compartmentalize a cut, but they do not “heal” like human skin does, and the wound is contained within the tree forever.Small cuts do less damage to the tree than larger ones. It is best to prune when trees are young because the cuts will be smaller and easier for the tree to close. Pruning mature trees can create the need for large cuts that the tree cannot close easily.

Reasons to prune

  • To remove dangerous limbs that can fall and injure pedestrians and damage property.
  • To remove diseased limbs or limbs infested by insects, fungi, or bacteria that might result in failure and death for the limb.
  • To develop a stronger branching structure that is more resistant to damage and breakage.
  • To improve the tree’s aesthetics and increase light penetration into the canopy.
  • To provide clearance for streets and sidewalks.

What to Prune:

  • Dead and damaged branches: Remove dead and damaged branches first. After removing these branches, other problems become apparent. Damaged living branches include broken, dangling, or fractured branches.
  • Stubs: Protruding ends of a branch that have been broken off or improperly pruned. These must be pruned back to a node or connecting branch.
  • Suckers and water sprouts: Rapidly growing, vertical shoots that sprout from the roots or along the trunk and main branches. Eventually these shoots will destroy the shape of the tree. Suckers (shoots growing from the base or roots of the tree) and water sprouts (shoots growing from the trunk or branches) are often a sign of a tree under stress. They should be removed at the point of origin.
  • Low Branches: Low branches do not allow pedestrians and vehicles to pass underneath unimpeded. They should be “limbed” up along street rights-of-ways.
  • Branches with narrow crotch angles: The crotch angle is where the branch meets the trunk. Angles of 20 degrees (approx. 1 o’clock) or less are too narrow for a strong joint to form. Such narrow joints will be very prone to breakage in ice storms, high winds, and hurricanes. A strong joint is made when the branch angle is at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock position. Branches with narrow crotch angles should be pruned selectively, especially with trees that are prone to this form of branching habit.
  • Rubbing branches: When two branches are rubbing against each other, the stronger branch is usually saved and the lesser one removed, but only if the larger branch is healthy and has a superior branch angle.
  • Crowded branches: Keep in mind that in time branches will increase in diameter. Branches that will eventually grow into each other must be thinned out. Remove the weaker branch, but as with rubbing branches, only if the larger branch is healthy and has a superior branch angle.
  • Branches that are a hazard: Branches that obscure the visibility of street signs such as school crossing, stop, or caution signs and traffic lights should be pruned.

When to Prune

The best time to prune live limbs is during late winter or early spring before leaves emerge. Avoid pruning when leaves are expanding, since this is more likely to cause heavy sap flow. Prune dead, diseased, and broken limbs as soon as you notice them; prompt pruning prevents the spread of decay and cavity development within the tree.

How to Prune

After you’ve carefully planned what you will prune, observe these steps:

  • Cut through 1/2 of the branch from underneath about a foot from the trunk. This will prevent stripping or peeling the bark off of the trunk.
  • A few inches further from the first cut, make the cut from the top of the branch downward. This will remove the entire branch.
  • Locate the branch collar (a layer of wrinkled bark where the branch attaches to the trunk) and the branch bark ridge (a raised area of bark at the branch/trunk union). Make the final cut just outside of the branch collar and the branch bark ridge, at the slight downward and outward angle. Do not cut into the collar or leave a stub.

To cut small twigs, use a set of hand pruners. For small branches, use loppers. For large limbs, use a hand-saw. All tools should have sharp blades, since clean cut wood closes (forms callus tissue) faster than jagged wood. Hand tools with by-pass blades are preferred. Anvil type blades, where the blades meet, should be avoided as they crush plant tissue.

To shorten a branch, or reduce tree height or tree spread, use the reduction pruning method. This method can redirect tree growth without severely damaging or topping the tree. Begin by removing the portion of the branch or terminal leader back to a side branch that is at least 1/3 to 1/2 the diameter of the removed portion of wood. This will help ensure that there are enough leaves to make food for the tree and prevent stub-cuts, which can lead to wood decay.

Avoid making a cut that leaves a wound over 4″ in diameter, since these take longer to callus over. Do not paint the pruning cut. Research shows that wound dressings are not effective in preventing decay.

Never remove more than 25% of the live crown or branches. This ensures that the tree has enough leaves to manufacture its own food.


Topped crape myrtles in particular are an unfortunate occurrence throughout Atlanta.

“Topping” is the reduction in size of a tree by severely cutting back the branches. Topping weakens the tree and leaves large wounds. Topping usually occurs when the tree is too large for the available above ground space. This situation is best avoided by selecting the correct size tree for the space initially. If a site placement mistake exists and a tree must be shortened, begin to prune while the tree is young, and make Reduction Pruning cuts where branches fork.

We know you’re excited, but don’t go too crazy!

Do not prune more than 25% of a tree’s canopy at once. Because of this, you must plan your cuts out before you begin. Always prune off branches that most obviously need to be removed. Be conservative. Do not prune live wood excessively.

Be thoughtful when you plan your cuts.

Trees Atlanta can teach you how to prune trees correctly and provide hands-on practice through our pruning classes. Classes occur in 3 part series twice a year. Please sign up for our weekly email to learn when the next pruning class will be.

Invasive Species

It is not difficult to find the impact of invasive species on our environment. A quick walk or drive around most any neighborhood in metro Atlanta will reveal kudzu creeping across ravines and overtaking fields and hillsides. You will spot English ivy wrapped around the trunks of large trees, or Chinese privet stealing precious sunlight and water from native plants. These and other invasive species can have a harmful impact on plants, animals, and humans.

So, what are invasive species?

An invasive species is any species (including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagation) that is not native to a given ecosystem, and whose presence causes economic or environmental harm, or a threat to human health.

Why are invasive species a problem?

In a new environment, invasive species are free from natural predators, parasites, or competitors found in their native habitats, and they often develop very high populations. These large populations can out-compete and displace native species, or can reduce wildlife, food, and habitat. Some invasive species can reduce forest productivity by reducing tree growth rates, restricting tree seedling establishment, elevating fire hazard, and increasing site preparation costs.

What can we do about invasive species?

Trees Atlanta hopes to restore forests to optimal health by removing invasive species and replanting those that are native to our environment. The Forest Restoration Program includes educational programs, community-based removal projects, contractor spraying and removal, and organized replanting events. Trees Atlanta has hosted two Forest Restoration conferences in recent years, and produced a greenspace manual designed to guide citizens through evaluating, protecting, and improving their community greenspaces.

Storm-Damaged Trees

Whether trees are damaged by hurricanes, tornadoes, intense rainstorms, or ice storms, they need to be carefully assessed to ensure the safety of homeowners and property. It’s also important to carefully assess whether a damaged tree can be saved, and if so, what actions can be taken to ensure and maintain optimal health.The following are guidelines recently developed by and used with permission of the Arkansas Forestry Commission:

Safety First

  • If damaged trees are entangled in overhead or downed utility lines, do not touch the limbs or lines. Treat all lines as if they were live. Alert your electricity provider.
  • Carefully inspect for broken or hanging branches near tree tops. Hanging limbs that could drop on your family, home, cars, or other valuable property should be removed safely and as quickly as possible. Any remaining tree damage can wait until the immediate emergency has passed.
  • Check your homeowner policy before beginning any tree work. Some policies cover tree damage if structural repairs are needed.
  • If you use equipment including chain saws to remove limbs, take all safety precautions including the use of full personal protective equipment – especially hard hats, eye protection, leather gloves, and close-toed shoes.

Determine if the Tree Can Be Saved

  • Trees may look unbalanced due to missing branches, but if they are healthy and at least half of the branches are intact, the tree has a good chance for a full recovery. Take your time on assessing which trees to remove completely.
  • In most cases, if more than 50 percent of a tree’s top remains intact, the tree can recover from damages.
  • Make sure that after removing damaged limbs, the tree will still provide aesthetic value to the property. If not, you may consider replacing the tree.

Assess the Damage

  • When the damage is limited to a few small branches, light pruning is usually all that is needed.
    • Make sure pruning tools are sharpened. Dull edges can cause further damage to the tree.
    • Remove loose or loosely attached branches to avoid further injury and decay to the tree.
    • Branches that have pulled away from the trunk should be removed at the bottom of the rip.
    • When pruning, cut branches on the branch side of the tree to avoid further damage to the tree trunk.
  • Never “top” the tree, which means – you should never simply cut the entire top of the tree off. This weakens the tree and makes it more susceptible to further injury and disease over time.
  • For larger branches, a certified arborist with the equipment and knowledge should be hired to ensure the work is done safely and properly.

Decide Whether to Remove the Tree Completely

  • If the trunk is split, the tree will need to be removed.
  • If more than 50 percent of the tree’s top is damaged, the tree will most likely need to be removed.
  • If the tree has been damaged several times previously, it may become a greater hazard over time. Carefully assess trees with previous injury or disease for possible removal.
  • Finally, a tree leaning from root damage will usually not survive; the tree will need to be removed.

Selecting an Arborist or Forestry Professional

  • Arborists are professionals who have made a career out of tree care.
  • When working with arborists or forestry professionals, request proof of certification and/or of membership in professional organizations. A qualified arborist should be an ISA-Certified Arborist (certified through the International Society of Arboriculture).
  • When working with arborists or forestry professionals, request proof of worker’s compensation and liability insurance.
  • Check references for any professionals you hire to assist you with clearing damaged trees.
  • Get multiple estimates for the work you need done, in every circumstance.
  • Visit the ISA website to find a certified arborist near you.

Take steps to prevent tree distress

In sports, they say the best offense is a good defense. The same can be said of trees. The easiest way to give your tree the best opportunity to grow and prosper is to help defend it from elements that can bring harm. Protecting your tree from extreme heat, dry conditions, and soil problems is a sure-fire way to make your tree as worry-free as possible.

Trees in urban areas are susceptible to stresses such as air pollution, reduced access to water due to pavement and asphalt, and poor soils, which lack the replenishing nutrients from the fallen leaves and trees of the forest floor. Clay soils can make it difficult for roots to receive the water they need, and soils compacted by human activity can suffocate the roots of trees. Environmental stresses, just like with us humans, make trees more susceptible to disease and injury. The best way to protect trees in your care is regular maintenance, especially mulching. During times of drought, young trees may need additional watering. Tree roots need non-compacted soils and room to spread, and certain types of ground cover are preferable underneath trees. For advice on the proper care of your trees, contact your county extension agent, a certified arborist, or Trees Atlanta.

  • Most important for tree health is mulching. Add 3-4 inches of organic mulch under the entire canopy of a tree (if possible), especially in areas where people frequently walk or park their cars.
  • Prune trees appropriately. Properly pruned trees are less likely to suffer problems during storms. Large limbs should always be pruned by a licensed and insured arborist.
  • If you plan to do major landscaping or build additions on your property, make plans to protect trees and their roots, including the entire area under the drip-line (also known as critical root zone). You may wish to consult an arborist for help with this type of planning. “Tunneling” and “boring” are alternatives to destructive trenching when installing utilities.
  • Always try to avoid covering tree roots with asphalt or concrete within the critical root zone.
  • Don’t panic about having trees around your house after a hurricane or freak ice storm. The trees left standing, if they are not severely damaged, are the sturdy, healthy survivors. It is best to keep trees pruned appropriately so they will be less susceptible to storm damage. If you have trees or tree limbs that must be removed due to storm damage, choose your tree service carefully. Uninsured (and often unscrupulous) tree removal companies circulate neighborhoods looking to capitalize on your fear, and sometimes use the confusion to clear-cut and harvest healthy trees for their own gain.
  • When planting new trees, make sure there is plenty of room for them to achieve their mature size. A good rule of thumb is at least eight feet from streets or sidewalks and not directly under power lines for large overstory species.