What some of the biggest plants in your yard need to heal from February's big freeze is a patient human caretaker who'll provide time before pruning or removal.

"They don't want to die," Chris Olsen, managing partner of Tree Removal Service Tucson, says of trees and palms. "They try to regrow as much as possible."

But many gardeners are eager to take off the damaged or dead limbs and get their landscape looking like its old self.

"The best way to know where to cut is where the new growth is coming on," says Juan J. Barba, owner of Juan J. Barba & Associates.

"Where you see the buds, that part of the tree is alive," says Barba, a certified arborist.

Both experts discuss how to deal with freeze-damaged trees and palms.

Ornamental trees

Banana, jacaranda and other tropical trees suffered greatly in the freeze, says Barba.

Native palo verde, acacia and mesquite and non-natives such as eucalyptus reacted to the freeze by dropping almost all of their leaves. It's a survival strategy that gives no indication whether the tree is healthy.

A better gauge for all trees is by scratching away the bark of a branch, not the trunk. Green underneath the bark indicates life.

Once trees start to leaf out, usually beginning in late spring, the deadwood will become apparent as bare spots.

You can tell a little earlier by bending twigs no larger in diameter than a pencil. If it snaps, that part of the tree is dead.

Prune off dead twigs and branches down to where the growth appears.

If a tree doesn't produce leaves, the next thing to try is to get rid of major branches to the trunk in a process that Barba calls restructuring. This will generate new branches.

Another method is cutting down the trunk to allow healthy roots to sprout a new tree.

Both will result in weird-looking growth and plants for a while.

"It's going to take years to turn that tree back into a tree that looks like a tree and not like a big lollipop or shrub," Barba warns. Both methods also will require several prunings as the tree grows back.

Small trees that suffered major freeze damage may have to be removed because they're less likely to recover from their weakened state.

Citrus trees

To determine the tree's viability, do the same tests as for ornamental trees: scrape the bark, wait for leaves or bend twigs.

However, if the tree is alive, don't prune away the damaged portions at least through the summer and possibly for a year.

"If you go to cutting right now, you might cut out a branch that has new growth," says Olsen.

The subsequent growth also will provide shade for sunburn-prone trunks once the deadwood is cut away.

If you prune before that natural shade is created, Barba suggests these ways to protect the trunk:

• Build a frame so that you can use shade cloth to cover the trunk, but not weigh down the tree.

• By April, whitewash any part of the trunk exposed to south or southwestern sun. Don't paint all the way around the tree.

If a citrus tree froze to the ground, you'll have to remove it. Since it's grafted, it won't grow the same fruit.


Among palms, tropical species such as queen and pygmy date, as well as small and young plants, suffered the most from the freeze. California and other fan natives had only minor damage.

If the shoot in the center of the plant is not green, it's dead. You may not know that until as late as July as leaves make their way out from deep in the trunk.

It's helpful to cut away the dead leaves of tropical palms so that the new growth comes out straight.

Cut only the dead parts of fan palm fronds so that some leaf is left for food generation.

when pruning help is needed

Call a tree service when pruning becomes hard, inaccessible or dangerous.

Most companies will provide free estimates of work to be done, says arborist Juan Barba. Consultants will charge between $50 and $100.

Costs for work vary greatly depending on the amount and precision of the pruning, length of job, season, equipment requirements and safety issues. Tree Removal Service Tucson co-owner Chris Olsen estimates that prices range from $150 to more than $1,000 for a palm, $100 to $800 for mesquites, up to $1,200 for a large eucalyptus.

A list of arborists who are members of the Arizona Community Tree Council Inc. is available online at www.aztrees.org

Contact local freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net