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COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: Pruning season means sharpening tree-trimming skills
By Dennis Tompkins
The Evergreen Arborist
Football season is over. Basketball is in full swing. Spring training is just around the corner. And, yes, pruning season is upon us. So it is time to break out the loppers, saws and first aid kits.
There are three major items to consider when planning your spring tree work.
First, fruit trees will benefit from pruning to enhance fruit production.
Second, pruning ornamental trees is completely different from pruning fruit trees.
Third, if hiring someone to do the work, choose a reputable tree service or a professional arborist. Unfortunately, there are plenty of well-meaning folks who do not posses the knowledge of proper pruning techniques.
February through April is the traditional time for pruning fruit trees. If they have been pruned on a regular basis, they have developed numerous water sprouts. As a general rule, one-third or more can be thinned out. Most of the remaining sprouts should be shortened to 4 to 10 inches.
This treatment will concentrate most of a tree’s energy into producing fruit on fewer branches rather than dispersing it throughout numerous untrimmed sprouts.
Caution: if all the sprouts are removed, a tree will bear little or no fruit.
Treat Ornamental Trees Gently
Ideally, ornamentals like cherries, flowering plums and others should be carefully thinned. Avoid severe topping or aggressive pruning. Not only is it ugly, but it makes a tree think someone is trying to kill it. Most trees respond to heavy topping or thinning by sending up fast-growing water sprouts to replenish the food-manufacturing branches and leaves that have been removed.
These sprouts can grow up to 5 feet or more a year. Often a heavily-topped tree will reach its original height in just two to three years. But there will be many more branches to deal with than before that can cause maintenance nightmares. In addition, large cut surfaces will often serve as entry points for decay organisms.
Responsible tree services and certified arborists will discourage tree topping. The key to successful ornamental pruning is to have the final result look as if very little has been done to a tree or shrub.
If a tree is too wide or tall for its space, there are at least two options:
1 – Carefully select some of the longer, unsightly branches. Either cut them back to where they join a larger branch or the main trunk or lightly trim them back to a shorter length.
2 – Remove the tree and plant one that will grow to fill, not overcrowd, a chosen space. This is much preferable to doing a severe pruning job. Take the height estimates on labels with a grain of salt. Often they are conservative.
Do the Right Thing
Do-it-yourselfers should attempt to learn the proper techniques. If hiring the work done, find out what the pruner plans to do. Is he or she on the same wavelength as you? Feel free to request a list of references.
Before starting to work on an ornamental tree, I usually ask a homeowner what he or she wants a tree to look like. Sometimes I have to explain why their request may not be practical or healthy for a tree and we will discuss some options. This should be the approach by any knowledgeable and responsible tree pruner.
Sometimes a homeowner will tell me to “do what I think needs to be done.” This can be a dangerous instruction to give to a stranger because some tree pruners do not know the correct way to treat ornamental trees. The results may be painful to look at. And it might be even more painful to write a check.
I always insist that a homeowner be present during a job. That way he or she can immediately approve of the work in progress or express concerns and be available to ask or answer questions.
Doing the right thing will result in happy trees, a happy homeowner and enhance the reputations of responsible tree services and arborists. A poor job is very noticeable and neighbors and passersby will wonder what the heck a homeowner is trying to do to his trees.
Dennis Tompkins, a Bonney Lake resident, is a certified arborist and certified tree risk assessor. He provides small tree pruning, pest diagnosis, hazard tree evaluations, tree appraisals and other services for homeowners. Contact him at 253-863-7469 or email at email@example.com. Web site: evergreenarborist.com.