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Care and Pruning of Damaged Trees

broken trunkTrees can be damaged by high winds, snow, ice and/or other severe weather. Some damage will require immediate attention while others may be dealt with at a later time.

Safety is a primary concern when working with trees. Any work that requires a chain saw or cannot be performed from the ground should be done by a professional tree-care service or arborist.One or both should be consulted when assessing trees for possible removal.


In all but life threatening situations, you may want to consider contacting your insurance carrier before any tree work is performed. Most homeowners' policies will cover at least part of the cost of tree removal if some structural damage has occurred.

Be Conservative

Many communities across the country have either had damage to, or have lost trees, because of major ice and/or snow storms, or other natural causes in recent years. Decisions made soon after the damage occurs can, and will, determine whether or not a damaged tree survives.

Do not prune or remove more than necessary right after an occurence. Remove any hazards, and clean up roughly broken branches, but save major decisions on pruning and removals for later. While the damage may look severe at first, concentrate more on how to save the tree rather than making a quick decision to cut it down. Damaged trees may still be able to serve the function for which they were planted. Don't be too hasty to remove a tree if that decision can be delayed until spring or even for a year. The tree may not have been damaged as badly as first believed. On the other hand, a major injury may reduce the useful life of the tree. Severe or large wounds can produce an entry point for decay, fungi or insects.

If a tree is injured so badly that it must be removed, consider replacing it. Before planting a new tree, make sure the replacement tree is the proper species and size for the site. Contact your local DEC office, or tree nursery for advice on tree selection and planting.

broken branchHazardous Trees

Hanging or loosely attached branches and split trunks are obvious safety concerns. They should be dealt with as soon as possible to avoid the possibility of personal injury and/or property damage. Broken but firmly attached branches that pose no immediate danger of falling can be pruned after the more hazardous branches have been removed. Trunks that are split down the middle are very difficult to brace adequately, and should be removed or addressed by a professional tree-care service or arborist.

Leaning Trees

Some storms may not break the above ground portion of the tree but instead might tip the tree over by breaking some of the roots. Trees leaning uprooted treefrom root breakage usually do not survive for long. If a tree tips in a storm, it often means the tree had damaged or poorly developed roots prior to falling or leaning over. Larger, more mature trees rarely survive attempts to pull them back into place. These generally should be removed and replaced. Smaller and more recently planted trees have a better chance of surviving if the trees are gently pulled back to their vertical positions. Soil needs to be packed firmly around the root system and watered well. Trees should be staked until the roots have become established again.

Power Lines

Branches hanging over power lines are a major safety hazard from the standpoint of both the person removing the branches, as well as any passers-by. Special training is required to safely prune these branches. Homeowners should not attempt to prune branches near, or laying on, power lines. Contact your local power company or a professional tree-care service trained in electrical line clearance to have these branches removed.

Avoid Fertilizing

Do not assume that damaged trees will benefit from a fertilizer application. If trees are removed completely and new trees are planted, it is not necessary to fertilize new trees for the first year. Most trees, that come from a nursery, are well fertilized already and do not need additional treatment.

Newly planted trees require regular watering for the first few years, especially if rainfall is not adequate. An organic mulch placed around the base of a newly planted tree will allow for better moisture retention in the soil, as well as help reduce nutrient and moisture competing weeds. Do not place the mulch up against the tree itself; place it several inches away.

Initial Pruning

The only pruning that really needs to be done immediately after damage has occured is the removal of broken branches. If damage occurs during the winter leave the fine pruning and finishing cuts until late winter or early spring. All pruning cuts will dry out to some degree during the winter. Die back of inner bark around a pruning cut can be minimized if final pruning is left until just before the tree begins to grow in the spring.

If the damage occurs during the growing season, perform all fine pruning as soon as possible. Trees will attempt to seal wounds where they occur.

Before broken branches are removed, they should be examined carefully, and proper pruning methods should be used to minimize the damage to the branch. Trees too large to handle from the ground should be pruned only by professional tree-care service or an arborists.

Branches to Remove

Safety is the first consideration in removing branches from storm damaged trees. All branches that are loose should be removed as soon as possible to eliminate the chance of injury or damage if they were to fall. Other branches that are cracked or broken should be removed after the loose branches are gone. A branch (or trunk) that was partially stripped of its bark when an attached branch pulled away, and more than a third of the original circumference of bark is lost, should be removed.

pruning cut diagram
U-shaped strong branch union on left.
V-shaped weak branch union on right.

Making Pruning Cuts

Pruning cuts should be made so that only branch wood is removed and the trunk or supporting stem is not injured. If only branch wood is removed, and the wound is small, the tree will be able to seal the wound more effectively, and the chance of problems with wood decay will be greatly reduced.

To locate the proper place to make a pruning cut, look for the "branch bark ridge" or "branch collar" on the upper surface of the union of the branch with the supporting stem. This is a line of bark that has been pushed up as the branch and supporting stem have grown. Some branch unions will not have this if they did not form properly. Instead they will have the branch simply pressing into the supporting stem, forming a sharp V-shaped union. At the base of the branch, and mostly on the underside, look for the "branch collar," which is a slightly swollen area of stem tissue that wraps around the base of the branch. A proper pruning cut begins just outside the branch bark ridge and angles down and slightly away from the stem, avoiding injury to the branch collar. Do not make flush cuts that remove the branch collar. Wounds created by flush cuts cause substantially more injury to the tree than wounds left by proper pruning. Branches should be pruned using a series of three cuts: two to remove the weight of the branch (first under then over the branch), then the final pruning cut. Branches that have pulled away from the trunk should be removed at the bottom of the split. Avoid causing any additional damage to the trunk. Remove any loose bark, but do not cut into bark that is living and still attached.

a topped tree with weak branches sprouting from below the cut
A topped tree with
weak branches sprouting
from below the cut

Pruning Don'ts

NEVER top trees! Topping creates serious hazards and dramatically shortens the life of a tree. Branches that sprout from just below the topping cut have very weak attachments and become hazards especially as they grown and increase in weight.

Do not use paint or wound dressing to cover wounds. These materials do not help the tree and actually may interfere with the tree's wound sealing process.

Prevention of Damage

Some trees are more likely to be damaged in storms. Some species, such as willows and poplars, are softer and are more likely to be injured. Structural defects such as codominant stems, weak branch attachments, and decay are particularly susceptible to storm damage. Most structural defects can be prevented by proper pruning when trees are young. Removing weak branches and correcting poor form when branches are small will minimize the size of the pruning wounds.

For more information on tree care, contact your local DEC office.