Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Pruning Your Shade Trees. Part 2

The question of when to prune trees is moot even among treemen, but their differences are largely quibbling. In a general way all will accept the classic rule, "Prune when the tool is sharp," which has few exceptions. Some people think it is perilous if not criminal to prune a tree in bud or leaf. Such dogmatism is absurd and it ignores the advantage to be gained, whether pruning for health or appearance, by distinguishing clearly between dead and live members. Spring pruning gives wounds the benefit of spring growth to quicken healing. "Bleeders" like most of the maples, boxelder, linden, walnut, yellow-wood, and the willows and birches are best left untouched until after their leaves are well out - more because their copious sap is messy to work in than because the trees may "bleed to death." Sugar maples tapped year after year live to ripe old ages. Trees pruned young, to shape their lasting characters, will bear fewer lasting scars than trees shaped late in life. But as with repentance, better prune late than never.

Let the home owner approach his first pruning job - a deciduous 15-footer - with this framing thought in mind: in what ways would this tree look different if it were in perfect condition? Obvious at once are any broken or dead branches. Questionable are branches that look crowded or are actually touching one another. More puzzling are a lot of branches and twigs and shoots each of which may have good right to be there but all of which, in the most untutored eye, add up to unhealthy overgrowth and confusion. How to proceed? Begin with your handsaw on the breakage and dead-wood. Lay on the teeth at the member's basal swelling, on the upper side, and saw downward flush to the trunk or parent member. Go slowly at first, until you learn your tool's balance and reach.Branches more than an inch thick, and bearing some weight, will tend to sag and tear away before you finish your downward cut. (See Fig. 3.) Prevent this by steadying the branch with your free hand. Or, before you start cutting down, make first a shallow upward cut into the underside of the branch's base. On branches two inches thick or more, take this precaution by making three cuts: one from below, a few inches away from the base; the next close above, down from the top until the branch snaps off; the last, down through the base to flush off the stub (Fig. 4). If a forking branch is pruned, make the trial cut upward to come flush (Fig. 5).

Pruning a tree
Pruning a tree

Among the dead branches that you prune, there may be some whose bases have rotted back into the parent member. For now, leave these lesions alone except for painting them over. They may require some knife or chisel work, which will be described in a later chapter. Among the breakage there may be some branches damaged only out toward their ends, leaving sound parts that you may want to save. Cut these back for now to the nearest good fork or shoot. Such truncated members can be reconsidered when you prune the tree's other live parts. With breakage and deadwood out of the way, next stand off and squint at your tree through half-closed eyes. Perceive its "habit" - how its members grow to give it characteristic outer shape and inner pattern. Identify the main members and keep them in mind to preserve and accentuate. Against their basic symmetry, superfluous members will stick out like extra thumbs. Don't hesitate to lop them. Some trees are more prone than others to proliferate interfering branches, including linden, dogwood, hawthorn, hackberry, mulberry, boxelder, and many of the maples. All these trees will stand a lot of "tailoring."

Where a young tree has a main fork low in its stem, steel yourself to amputate one leader or the other so that the survivor can take command. A close look at how the competing leaders grow will tell you which to condemn. Direct your attention next to sucker growths. These are straight, unbranching shoots that you don't want to become important members. They only consume energy and clutter form. They may come up from the tree's roots or out of its trunk or off main members. Prune suckers ruthlessly, using your shears and pole tools. There will be more suckers next year in case you need any to fill out a pattern.

As you work upward and outward after clearing the tree's inner air space, room for the secondary branches and twiggy terminals increases. Your object here is only to lessen interference, without creating gaps in the tree's spread and crown. Gaps are not only unsightly: they expose interior stems to sunscald. Take it easy as you go and stand off frequently to study your progress. Remember, there is no fixed rule for the shape or density of any tree, unless it is this: after you have pruned, your efforts should not, like a "plumber's haircut," be too obvious. A properly pruned tree has an airy, graceful wholeness that persuades the beholder it grew just that way all by itself. If the tree is too wide or too tall to suit you, or is threatening to become so, do not shear or head it back as you would a hedge. Single out the too long or too high members and lessen them one by one by drop-crotching - that is, cutting back to a fork where the abbreviation will look natural. (This overhead work will perfect your handling of the pole tools.)