Oak pruning season is here Helps prevent oak wilt, Update on Steiner’s oak wilt case

Oak wilt disease is prevalent in these oak tree leaves. Courtesy Texas A&M Forest Service/April Rose, City of Austin

By LESLEE BASSMAN, Four Points News

While many may be focused on Christmas trees right now, oak trees may also need attention as it is prime time to trim both.  

Experts agree that trimming limbs off oaks from Feb. 1 – June 30 puts the trees at a greater risk of becoming infected with oak wilt, a disease that cannot only shut down the system of a tree but spread throughout neighborhoods, changing their landscapes. Steiner Ranch has a case of oak wilt.

“I think the pruning dates [for oak trees] are really important,” said Don Gardner, an ISA certified arborist who practices across from Steiner Ranch on Lake Austin.

Oak wilt is a fungus causing oak trees to clog their vascular systems, starving the tree of water, and essentially forcing the tree to ‘wilt,’ said April Rose, urban forest health coordinator for the city of Austin. The tree gets these characteristic, very rapid drought symptoms, she said.

Most oak wilt is spread when the disease passes through interconnected root systems between trees; however, the smell of open wounds from pruned limbs can entice a beetle to carry an oak wilt spore from an infected tree to a healthy tree, Rose said.

She recommends residents sterilize their tools between pruning trees, including spraying a tool with Lysol, and immediately painting a pruning cut after it is made on an oak tree.

“The goal is just to minimize the risk that an insect will find that fresh wound, land on that wound and carry that fungal spore to a tree,” Rose said. “There is an elevated risk because [from Feb. 1-June 30] is the time when the spore is more prevalent in the environment and when the beetle is also active that could carry that spore to a fresh wound.”

Steiner Ranch

Drivers in Steiner Ranch don’t have far to look to find out the best time to prune oak trees as the neighborhood has erected signs to alert homeowners of when to take action.

The community has an oak wilt policy that prohibits pruning or trimming oaks from Feb. 1-June 30 and cautions residents to “always paint fresh oak wounds immediately after pruning with wound dressing or latex paint, regardless of the season.” Sterilizing pruning tools with a 10 percent bleach solution or Lysol between tree cutting is also advised as well as directing homeowners to immediately chip or burn debris from diseased red oaks.

This policy was made a part of the Steiner Ranch Residential Owners Association rules and regulation last year, enforceable by a fine of $250 per violation, with each tree cut in violation of the policy possibly considered as a separate violation. Repeated violations of the policy subject the offending homeowner to incrementally greater fines.

A new oak wilt center was confirmed in 2016, said Clay Bales, staff forester with the nonregulatory state agency Texas A&M Forest Service.

Four Points News reported in February “oak wilt was confirmed in the Plateau neighborhood in Steiner in the summer of 2016.”

Bales said since then, the community has created a strategy and the signage is part of that strategy. Also, there have been several oak wilt presentations to educate the community including “Combating Oak Wilt” on Oct. 25 where about 15 people attended the hands-on pruning workshop.

Bales said that the oak wilt center appears to be contained to the Plateau area.

Overall, the oak wilt has not crossed John Simpson which is great news,” Bales said. “It appears to be only growing north on the east side of John Simpson. That may change but for me, it’s been good news.”

He added that this is still the only oak wilt center in Steiner Ranch of which he is aware.

“I haven’t seen any or heard of any new centers since that center was discovered,” Bales said.

The focus for Steiner residents should be oak wilt prevention, he said.

“Everyone should be reminded to get out and do all of your oak tree pruning now so that when late winter and spring come around, they won’t have any pruning left to do,” Bales said.

Arborist Gardner said education within neighborhood groups, including homeowners associations, is going to make a difference combatting oak wilt in the long run.

“It’s those smaller neighborhood groups that can help people understand what’s going on, keep up with their oak wilt,” he said. “I’ve been saying for 20 years that neighborhood groups are really the key to oak wilt control.”

River Place

Homeowners in River Place, annexed by the city of Austin in December 2017, follow Austin guidelines regarding oak trimming, River Place Homeowners Association President Scott Crosby said.

Although the city promotes residents to use the aforementioned best practices when it comes to the trimming of oak trees, Austin “does not have any rules or regulations that govern when somebody can prune or cut their oak trees or any other trees,” Rose said.

“The reason we don’t regulate that is because there are a lot of reasons people might need to prune their trees year-round, especially in times of a safety hazard or for clearance issues,” Rose said. “We wouldn’t want people to defer maintenance that ought to occur. Instead, [a homeowner] can still use best practices and minimize the risk of an oak tree getting oak wilt.”

Crosby said his HOA has not seen any oak wilt in River Place. The group had a couple of complaints at some point about a resident pruning a tree and not painting the wound “but nothing significant,” he said. The community’s Firewise Committee — which helps keep it safe from wildfires — tries to educate homeowners about both the proper time to prune oak trees and the type of trimming that should be conducted, Crosby said. Additionally, the HOA sends out an email in the spring about when to abstain from trimming oak trees, he said.

“If the HOA gets a complaint from a homeowner, we will notify them and ask them to take action, whether it be to paint the wounds or restrain from any further trimming,” Crosby said, adding the HOA does not have the authority to levy fines. “We simply try to educate them about the issues with oak wilt and how it might affect the entire neighborhood.”

Hudson Bend, Lakeway

Four Points fares better in oak wilt avoidance than other Central Texas areas.

Gardner said there is “pretty substantial oak wilt in Hudson Bend and really substantial oak wilt in Lakeway.”

But, locally, the Four Points area may be better off than other Central Texas communities, when it comes to the tree disease, he said.

“It’s more fortunate than Lakeway, for example, that keeps getting more and more [oak wilt],” he said of Four Points. “I think that folks being aware of it and knowing when not to prune and how to take care of their trees is very important.

Pruning tips

The general dates for pruning are not foolproof; rather, it is dependent on the weather, she said. A warm day in January may allow for the beetle to infect another tree even though that month is within the appropriate oak tree pruning dates, Rose said.

“So, it’s much more efficient and helpful for people to know a blanket rule of ‘paint your wound immediately on any oak tree,’” Rose said.

Gardner agreed homeowners should temper the timing of pruning with the weather conditions.

“When we get to July 1, if we are in an extended heat or a drought time, don’t go out there and start pruning a bunch of live branches out of your tree,” Gardner said. “That’s just not good for them.”