Wow! What a winter! Or not! My astonishment comes from nature’s proof that, once again, there is no such thing as normal and the climate of New England is usually unusual.
So, when you’re dealt April weather in February, smile and use this opportunity to enjoy getting outdoors to care for your landscape. These conditions are perfect for getting a jump on such tasks as dormant pruning. My experience is such that all too often pruning tasks get kicked down the road because of inhospitable weather and then all of a sudden more important tasks arise because spring has sprung.
Dormant pruning? Where to begin?
The first lesson is to observe trees that have been recently pruned. Many times (too many times), I see pruning examples that make me cringe. Pruning is a science (as are most aspects of horticulture), and the public tends to take lightly the value of training and education in handling and executing proper tree and shrub care. So let’s go through some basic things which may truly help guide you in choosing whether to hire a properly trained professional or to tackle the task yourself without becoming the “butcher of trees.”
The first common mistake has little to do with pruning at all. It has to do with planning and understanding the site being landscaped and the plants being used. Plant the correct tree or shrub on the correct site. Do not plant a tree that will grow to be 30 feet or more on a site that cannot handle a tree of that size.
Now to pruning cuts. First off, be sure to use a sharp saw or pruners. Be sure to use cross-cut or bypass pruners for clean cuts. A dull saw or anvil type pruners will leave jagged cuts or crushed wood, which will invite infections.
You cannot go wrong removing dead wood. Left un-pruned, a dead branch will prevent proper healing and act as pathway for disease and decay to enter the tree or shrub. Be sure to understand where the branch collar begins and to avoid cutting into this healthy wood.
Crossover branches are also easy to recognize and removal of one will almost never affect the tree. Try to visualize one or the other being removed in deciding which to cut. Lot at the situation from several angles to best appreciate the consequences of your decision.
The most important feature of proper or desired tree structure is a single straight central leader. Sometimes trees will develop a strong central leader naturally. Many times, though, a young tree will fork into co-dominant leaders. We have seen red maples with several (6+) leaders. This creates weakness where the leaders diverge and many years later, usually in high wind weather events, failure can occur with catastrophic results in property damage or injury. Again, a few corrective cuts by a trained professional can save thousands of dollars down the road.
Crown Reduction Pruning
When a tree begins to outgrow a desired height, it can be controlled with what is termed crown reduction pruning or, more specifically, drop crotch pruning. This is where a leader or strong lateral branch is cut back from its tip to a lower, smaller branch at the crotch. Whatever you do, DO NOT TOP the poor tree. Besides potentially doing irreparable harm to the tree, which would result in eventual death, you are creating an eyesore to anyone who appreciates the large trees we are so blessed to live among and which we all too often take for granted.
This advice just begins to cut the surface of the subject of pruning. Many resources are readily available, both in print and online. You would be spending your time wisely to read and learn before breaking out the saw or hedge shearers.
More advanced subjects relating to pruning techniques such as layering, thinning, pollarding, grafting, and training (espaliers) and topiaries will be explored in future blogs. Remember, you can always cut more next season, but, once a branch is cut, it’s not likely to grow back. Have fun learning and appreciate the beauty of well cared for trees!