Winter Tree Inspections - The Homeowners Edition

How to do a winter tree inspection, homeowners edition.


I am a big fan of winter for many reasons, Ice fishing, sledding, ice-skating, skiing, building snowman and forts. However, trudging through snow on cold and windy days to look at trees… some people think I am crazy. Yes, they are right; I am crazy for trees! Winter is a spectacular time to get out and look at your trees, as long as you know what to look for and where to look. In winter trees can reveal secrets camouflaged by their summer foliage. Before we run outside your experience will be greatly enhanced by dressing appropriately for the weather and temperature. Okay everyone get out your parkas, snow pants, boots, gloves, and hats, let’s head outside.

Once you have located the tree the first step is identification. What kind of tree is it? Generally speaking if it has green needles in winter it is a coniferous tree (also known as a evergreen or gymnosperm), if it has bare twigs it is a deciduous tree (also know as broad leaf or angiosperm). From here you can use a book, a friend, or the Internet to narrow down exactly what species of tree you are looking at. (A future post will be local tree ID made easy). Now that you properly identified the tree we can start to compare it to what is known to be normal. Normal can be predefined in a reference book, or it can be a comparison to how the tree has traditionally looked, or how other similar trees in the area look. 

Trees are 3 dimensional so take a quick lap all the way around the tree, 360 degrees, looking from the tip to base. How is the health? A good basic indicator of health is green foliage for conifers and plump buds on deciduous trees. Also look at the new growth on the branches.  Last year the branches elongated, the new growth usually shows in a slightly different color of bark or needle. Every year at the end of that years growtha bud is set, when that bud breaks and elongates in spring it leaves behind a scar the encircles the branch, called a terminal bud scar. Measuring the distance from one terminal bud scar to the next you can record how much the branch grew in that year.  Measure this new growth and compare it to last year, or surrounding similar trees, or what you have read in a book. How does your new growth compare? Generally, The longer the year’s growth, the more energy the tree had during the season, the happier it is.



Now let’s look for problems. Some problems are easy to spot and you need not be a tree expert to raise a flag of caution. In the canopy look for dead and broken branches, eventually these will fall out of the tree and can potentially cause harm. Look for cracks and seams especially where two branches come together, this is a structural weak spot that maybe concerning. Bulges, bumps, holes, sap flow, missing bark, and animal damage can be entry points for pests to gain access and perhaps harm the tree. Continue this scanning and work your eyes down the stem. Does the tree lean? If so, has it always had a lean or is it something new, it is best to monitor leaning trees on a regular basis for changes. Spend some time at the base of the tree where it meets the ground, move the snow away if you have to. What do you see? I hope you see a flare or widening at the base, this indicated the tree is responding to its environment, and is designed to handle the daily forces it feels. If you notice holes, flat spots, or it looks like a telephone pole stuck in the ground there maybe problems happening below ground. Since it is winter and roots are under ground they are tough to inspect. When things warm up keep an eye on the ground for heaving soil, cut or damaged roots, and mushrooms under the tree.

One fun winter activity is to measure your tree’s diameter. All you need is a tape measure, paper, and a calculator. Walk up to your favorite tree and measure four and a half feet from the ground, note that spot. This is a standardized forestry height measurement call “breast height”. Now at that height, run the tape measure all the way around the tree and back to the starting point. Record the total number of inches. You have just measure the circumference. Take the circumference and divide by 3.14 (pi). You have now calculated what foresters call “diameter at breast height” or DBH. This way anyone can measure your trees diameter and you should get the same number.

Try it with the whole family and compare your results. DBH is also great as you come back to the same tree over time you can measure again and see how much it grows. I encourage you to log your findings and measure again next year.

A tree’s diameter is used in many things, like forest products value, pesticide application amounts, tree health, and most important bragging right for who’s tree is bigger. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources keeps a record of champion big trees in the state, check it out and see how yours compares .

Now that your blood is pumping and your brain is stimulated think about the things you saw. Was something not normal or unhealthy? If your tree was treated last year with a pesticide how did it respond? If you have any questions about your tree or its health it is a good idea to have it looked at by a professional, and winter is a great time. Many problems can best be seen in winter and many solutions begin in early spring. Take advantage and beat the spring rush to speak with a Certified Arborist. Finally, remember that looking at trees in winter isn’t crazy, it’s crazy fun.


John Wayne Farber

Hoppe Tree Service, Special Projects Coordinator

B.S. Urban Forestry & Forest Management

ISA Certified Arborist WI-0877A

Certified Treecare Safety Professional 01462

ISA Qualified Tree Risk Assessor

WI Certified Pesticide Applicator 82324




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