Friday, September 30, 2016

My Tree and Pruning Rules

These are some very good tree and pruning rules to live by.

Pick the right tree before planting.  If a tree already exists, work on long-term goals and needs for that tree.  Plan for what you want the tree to become.  Make sure trees are compatible with each other.

Understand that trees are just as important, maybe even more so, than other features of your landscape, and need good management.  Lawns and shrubs will recover from bad care better than trees, so give trees more thought.

Bad pruning is frequently irreversible.  Can be corrected to a large degree over the long term by a SKILLED tree pruner.  Bad pruning is worse than no pruning.

Don't trust that gardeners, tree pruners and arborists know how to best care for a tree.  Learn what you can and discuss it.  See their past work and get references.  Pick their brains.  Be careful about learning about pruning from the internet.

Study bonsai trees, in person or in photos.  Not only is it fascinating, but you can learn the very best pruning techniques from these little trees,  which are pruned to a higher degree than landscape trees, and the techniques are transferable.  You would probably do well to hire anyone to prune your trees, at least smaller ones, if they have some bonsai background.

Safety first.  Watch your step and your eyes while walking around and always look before stepping back to examine a tree.  Wear a helmet if branches may fall on you or if you're on a ladder.  Watch for people, animals, wires, cars, and other objects that could be harmed during pruning.

Prune for safety, health, long-term and short-term goals with any tree, in that order.

Learn how to make proper cuts, and use the correct, sharp and clean tool for the job.  Disinfect after every cut if the tree has problems.

Strive to make pruning unnoticeable.  A great pruning routine should rarely be seen unless you're looking for manicured styles.

Dead or diseased branches should always be removed, any time of year, and are easier to spot when the tree is in leaf than while leafless. Some dead branches are hanging on by a thread, ready to come crashing down on something or someone.  Oaks tend to have weaker dead branches than many other trees.

Periodically inspect your trees for pests and diseases, especially susceptible ones like oaks, birches, Callery/Bradford pears, fruit trees, elms, etc.  Treat as needed or call an expert.

Avoid whorls-more than one or two branches emerging from the trunk or parent branch in any location.  Some trees have a natural tendency for growing this way, but poor pruning encourages this, including the multi-branching at 6' off the ground you see everywhere.  Trees look best when the major forks are limited to two branches. 

Promote good tapering in both the trunk and branches.  Stronger and looks better.  Lighten and thin at or near the tips where needed.

Promote good ramification--good, even, progressive branching patterns.  Coarse to fine.

Try to promote wide branch crotches, and eliminate narrow, included-bark crotches if they may become weak unions.

Never pollard a tree or commit Crape Murder.  Not healthy or attractive, and creates extra work.

Avoid liontailing: most of the foliage and fine branching only near the end of a branch.  Promote more even branching within the whole crown.  Some trees liontail themselves over time, but you can improve this.

A branch attached to another branch will increase the diameter of the parent branch and increase vigor at that location.  Keeping a temporary branch can be great for promoting tapering even if you know it will come off later.

Don't open up a tree so much that the bark can get sunscald.

Find the best timing for pruning a particular tree in your particular situation.  This can be tricky and fraught with problems.

Aim to keep the natural essence, growth shape and style of most trees unless there is a good reason to change it.

A smaller-diameter cut will heal faster than a large one.  Better for resisting disease and ugliness.  Pencil-sized cuts are a good goal.  Try to avoid more than one cut in one spot at a time so as to not cause large wound areas.

Try to encourage branches to be no more than half the diameter of the trunk at the point of attachment.

When re-leader in (cutting a branch back to a smaller branch, or the trunk back to train a new leader), the new leader should be at least 1/3 the diameter of the part you remove.

Try to remove no more than 25% of the live wood and footage of any branch at a time. Removing too much will reduce vigor and the whole branch may die.  If a branch recovers quickly and shows vigor, you can trim again soon, progressively.

Pruning lightly and more frequently is much better than heavily and infrequently.  Very young and old trees should be pruned less.  5% to 10% each time, 2 or 3 times a year is much better than 25% once in a while.  Some trees can handle more, but needing this means you waited too long.

Make the tapered, ramified branching structure of the tree an outstanding feature, not just the support for the leaves and flowers.

Keep the root crown/trunk flare exposed, clean and dry for better health and longevity.  Don't mulch right up to the trunk.

Broken branches from weakness are almost always avoidable by good preventative pruning.

Avoid overly-straight branches.

Pruning can increase the health, vigor and lifespan of most trees IF DONE CORRECTLY.

Trees from the nursery are rarely grown with the best training for a proper shape.

You can make a tree grow taller or shorter, wider or narrower, denser or more open than it would naturally.

Pruning in summer will tend to lower the energy of a tree, which can be a good or bad thing.   Pruning during the winter tends to redistribute the the pent-up dormant energy, which can be a useful tool, or a nightmare.

Removing fading or spent or unneeded flowers and seeds will increase the vigor of a tree.  Flowers and seed use a lot of energy.  Sometimes removing these at the right time will alow for a second flush of new flowers.

Remove reactive vertical water sprouts, but keep some temporarily if they're filling in a hole, or adding vigor to a weak or untapped branch.  Remove ones that are increasing taper where you don't want it,  usually toward the tips,   best to remove any before they get to be about 1/2" in diameter.  These can occur in most trees after heavy pruning, but are the most vigorous in purple plum trees.

Be extra cautious when pruning a tree that won't back bud or sprout from old wood, making replacement branching difficult.   Most noticeably this happens on pines and most other conifers.   Once it's gone,  it's gone for good.

Don't plant shrubs or other plants too close to a tree's trunk.  Give it at least a foot or so.

Try to determine your tree's genus, specie, botanical name, and needs.

Keep a journal on when, why and how your trees are pruned, and the immediate and future results, along with helpful notes.

More to come, keep checking back............

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pruning Rights, Wrongs, Maybe's, Rampant Opinions, and So Forth

After spending the last year or so immersing myself much deeper into all aspects of learning about pruning, tree and shrub cultivation overall, and gardening in other areas, I've come to learn that figuring all this out is tough, exhausting at times, and usually confusing.  Don't feel like a goofball if you can't figure it all out.  Probably nobody can, really.  Even the people that seem to have a natural talent or "get it" right off the bat or after years of experience, never quite get it all the way.  100% absolutes in gardening probably don't exist.  If you get easily frustrated and need easy answers and see things in black and white, you probably need a different hobby or career.

It would be nice to think that gardening is an exact science, like math.  But it's not.  There are way too many variables and opinions.  Even cooking would probably be less subjective.  I figure most people have an idea of what tastes good, and what tastes awful, and so the trick is to get things somewhere in between these extremes.  As long as you don't burn it or poison people, you're at least on the right track.  Once a certain meal is over, you can start fresh.  With gardening, there are long-term consequences.  If you do it wrong, you may destroy the environment and kill all the animals.  But don't let that worry you.

Opposing viewpoints in gardendom are common.  Misinformation abounds, oversimplification leads to all sorts of mistakes and confusion, and weird opinions can give me headaches.  I could write an article about conversations I've had with experienced gardeners who are complete idiots with no aethetic sensibilities, but that's really an opinion, I guess.  There are plenty of people who will agree with their awful judgement.  The most important thing is to avoid killing stuff, and everything else is less critical.

When you have this glorious internet thingy, you can find endless articles on every subject about gardening.  If you spend enough time, you'll probably be even more confused by the time you extensively research anything, most specifically in this case about pruning.

OK.  Understand that, and breathe a sigh of relief.

I need to focus here, and make this mostly about pruning.  So here goes.....

I know there are some very basic things that are almost completely in agreement, like how to physically cut branches to avoid damage and prevent decay and disease.  So you probably can learn all that you need to know about that in a half hour.  But then when you want to learn about things like WHY you should cut this or that, when to do it, how the plant will react, etc., good luck.  You need to use your head, if not to actually figure out the science and art, but simply how to make sense of what people tell you.  It can take a long time and a lot of backtracking to use logic to determine who has it right and who's full of baloney.  And then you have the rather unfortunate issue of people oversimplifying things for efficiency so they don't lose your attention and hopefully keep you from doing something stupid in the immediate future.  Just about any time something is oversimplified, you're missing a lot of info that can be vital to making the best decision.

You need to actually give horticulture a lot of deep logic to make sense of it all, or find someone that makes it so clear that there's almost no question what's right and wrong.  Unfortunately, I'm not yet fully at that stage, after reading hundreds of articles and taking classes from experts and experimenting (no, not with drugs), and I don't encourage you to take my word absolutely.  I can be wrong sometimes, and I'll correct myself as I learn, though I try to avoid telling you anything detrimental to the point that you'll actually hurt your plants in the long term. Rather, you might just not get them to look their absolute best.  Irreversible harm is something I do my best to avoid.  Sure, I've killed some plants.  Every gardener has.  But it's almost always caused by underwatering or overwatering or something like that, and not because a few bad cuts were made.

Horticulture, arboriculture, gardening, whatever you want to call it, is very deep.  There's this science, which is absolutely not fully understood, and then there's the art, which is highly subjective.  The science can vary a lot depending on reactions from something you do or the plant does on its own, or from your location and climate, or your intent.  The art is simpler, and it may just be what you think looks good with little regard as to whether it's judged right or wrong by other people, or if it's scientifically sound.  I tend to be quite experimental on some of my own trees, specifically about getting them to look a certain way, as anyone in bonsai does, and less experimental for clients.  In those cases, I encourage making things healthy and look natural but beautiful (completely natural isn't always beautiful, more on that in another article).  Sorry, this got a little off-topic.

Possibly the hardest thing to understand in pruning is timing.  I guarantee you that if you spend a few hours Googling "when to prune", or something like that, you'll come away more confused at the end of your endeavor than before.  Even opinions that are 180 degrees apart can be right, but it would depend on the expected outcome and the follow-up.  This will be discussed in another article, so at this point, just be assured that it's almost never simple.  Probably the most important thing regarding timing, is how to avoid making things unhealthy by pruning at the wrong time, though this in itself can vary for several reasons.  Oh, golly, how do I make this clear?

OK.  First, you want to research a tree you want to prune.  If it's a tree that is susceptible to diseases made worse by pruning at a certain time, do more research and figure it out for your area.  Trees like this include oaks, elms, birches, fruit and nut trees, bleeders, and flowering trees and shrubs that have fungal problems related to decaying flowers.  Good luck.  The opinions are often complete opposites.

Regarding specific cuts, the actual standards can often have rules that frequently have exceptions.  This, too, will require a separate article, so stay tuned.

OK, I'm not sure this article is making the sense I want it to, so just take away from it that you need to avoid thinking you'll have complete confidence, or find a concensus.  Research what you can, use your head, and don't just do what the neighbors do.  If you know someone that seems to really know their stuff, buddy-up with them.  And learn from their mistakes, and question what they do.  They don't always get it right.

Study trees that look like shining examples.  It may only take a few minutes.  It's easy to see when things are lopsided or hacked up, but try to see if the structure looks good.  It's not that hard, but this seems to be the thing I notice most people don't get, and that's another article or more that needs attention.  Once you get it, you pretty much get it for every tree you'll ever see again, so it's really worth a few minutes of concentration.

As far as what I can do, is try to write articles that tell you the difference between my own opinions and what would really be almost completely agreed upon by the experts.  So that's my new challenge.  Sometimes opinions can be so strong that I don't want people to disagree with me.  That isn't always the best strategy.  After all, if you polled a bunch of people about what they think is the most perfect movie ever made, I'm pretty sure the most common answer would be "Star Wars".  I know this because I used to ask this eact question of people in some surveys for other purposes, and it was far and away the most perfect movie by popular opinion.  Well, need I tell you, "Star Wars" has lots of flaws, far more than many other movies that might not be as much fun, so I would hesitate to use that movie as a shining example of the best movie ever made, no matter how entertaining it is.  Everyone should realize that "Sharknado" is the most perfectest movie ever, end of argument.

All right.  Go plant a tree and don't kill it.  That's a good start.  Have fun!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

We Don't Need No Education (Yeah, We Do): Tree School

I'll readily admit that I tend to be self-taught about most things related to my work and the rest of life since back in the day.  I never quite fit into school the way I wanted since formality, regimen, being part of a group, standardization, taking tests, sitting at desks, having weird classmates and things like that were never all that fun for me.  I seemed to do best to have seeds planted in whatever way they would be, and go off on my own with discovering how to do things in various ways, outside a classroom.  Since the days of the internet, education has been a double-edged sword.  Tons more information available than ever before, and immediate access. There's plenty of places for debate and Q&A, too.  Problem is, so much of what's out there is just plain wrong, or very bad opinion.  So you really need to be able to sort it all out.

However, it's very hard to be certified, accredited, licensed, and so forth without going through courses about this or that.  Much of my main profession (construction) doesn't really require such formality.  But in the world of tree management, there are certain instances where you either can't get work, or get the work you want without the esteem of going through the schoolin'.

There happens to be an aesthetic pruning course at Merritt College in Oakland, not far from my house.  This is one of very few around the country, and maybe the only one, dedicated to this.  Since there are billions of trees, it's needed.  Just like how there's not nearly enough access to education about construction, my other full-time passion.

I enrolled in these classes.  I believe there are 14 classes required within the realm of certification.  Rather than the normal system of needing to take all the classes in a course in order to be legit, each class is more or less stand-alone, but all would be needed to actually become certified.   There are another 5 or 6 classes that are more specific to this or that, and not part of the required classes. I know some hobbyists and homeowners may want to take a specific class or two without the goal of certification.

OK.  So the first class was an introduction.   This covered the history of pruning, which was very interesting.  I'll probably delve into this more and write another post about this.  We then went through the biology and science, and then the specifics of pruning, lightly touching on the basics.  The instructor was engaging and very passionate about trees.  His interest goes way beyond pruning, into such things as how the interaction with trees led to human civilization, how trees affect our lives in health and mind, how we view trees, how trees have a mechanism for communicating chemically between themselves and how they respond to their surroundings as if they have a brain, and some other areas of interest.  We covered how good pruning is every bit as much about art as about health and safety and survival.

I gained a lot of knowledge that isn't easy to happen across from books and web-browsing.  Things you can only get when you talk to people that have been around a while.  It's easy to ask a question that might be hard to phrase or categorize, and rather than trying to figure out how to arrive at the answer, the instructor is immediately available.  From there, you can go off and explore more about the subject at hand.

The second class delved more into pruning how, why an when, specifically about deciduous trees, with some crossover into all plants.  There was a bit more science and biology, and a lot of anecdotal experience, which was shared between the instructor and the students.  One instance of this is how we learned that cherry trees don't hide their wounds well at all and nasty scars are hard to avoid, so good and frequent pruning these is even more critical than for most trees.  I know from experience that cherry trees can look really bad after getting years of mistreatment, but this explanation put it all in perspective.  Learning about the peculiarities about a number of specific species is invaluable, and not always very easy to find on your own.

If I were to summarize the classes so far, I would say that everything covered so far is on target with what I've been doing all along, and more of a reinforcement than a revelation.  As the teacher and I were discussing during some off time, the more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know and want to learn more about, as is true with any level of expertise in any profession or area of knowledge.  The word "expert" is something that people need to be careful to use, since it's not set in stone.  I supose the very best of the best in any field would be considered experts, but that absolutely doen't mean that their knowledge won't advance or even change direction as things evolve.  The medical industry evolves in such a way.  Experts from 50 years ago would be wy outside their league today.  Most other industries are similar that way.  And just cuz the world of horticulture includes trees and plants that haven't changed much in thousands or millions of years, the understanding does, as does the list of diseases and such, requiring constand updating.  So I would call this instructor an expert based on what I experienced, and probably one of the best maybe dozen or so pruners in the state.  He may actually dispute this, since actual experts are usually hesitant to call themselves such.  He might mention that there are Japanese pruning experts that have been doing this for 70 years, and are truly the best.  That may be the case, but I maintain that much of the Japanese method of learning is too involved in tradition, often losing sight of the evolution of the subject.  And not to get off topic too much, but Japanese pruning is considered the premier method of pruning, though that certainly doesn't mean they do eveything right and everything else is a step down.

I can't think of anything we learned that is a contradiction of what I've been practicing, but rather a deeper understanding and refinement, along with some stories that increase the interest of this or that.  I haven't yet felt any tedium in the class, or that it's just not for me.

So if you're in the SF Bay Area, and want to learn more about pruning or appreciating trees and shrubs, this is possibly the best way to do it.  Classes are eaily accessible without red tape and reams of paperwork.  The cost is affordable. They're interesting and fun, and the first instructor is a pleasure.  I would guess that the other instructors teaching the remaining classes will also be enjoyable.  I'll find out in a couple weeks.

Be a Tree Dawg Knight!

Friday, February 5, 2016

I Confess to Murder, and Will Commit Again Soon......Crape Myrtle Rehab 101

I did it.  I didn't really want to, but it was the right thing to do.  It ended up not being a big deal after all.  Waiting for the fallout is the hard part.  But I'll be doing it again, and probably often.  They deserved it.

"Crape Murder".  A term that's full of fun and intrigue.  You have to realize that when there's a clever term for something, it usually means it's pretty common.  In this case, that's a terrible thing.

In my defense, what I just did was re-murder.  Now I guess that's sorta like using  the word "overkill".  Double jeopardy comes to mind too.  The legal kind, not that game with Alex Trebek.  Anyway, once a tree, especially a Crape Myrtle, has been murdered, the only recourse that can ever make it right is to commit one more murder, but in the right way.

The first thing to realize is that some people have tunnel vision.  They may only think about a tree for the most obvious attribute.  In the case of Crape Myrtles, that attribute is prolific flowering.  But I would always argue that a tree should be more complete, and that structure is the most important thing, because you see it all year, instead of just a few days or weeks.  And if you think about and look around at trees wherever you go, the most beautiful trees have great structure.  You may see it, but not actually realize it. Around here, the most prominent trees are Valley Oaks, and their structure is always impressive with great tapered, twisty branches.  There are no visible flowers or fall color, so that argument isn't even there.  These trees usually look great in winter, especially if nobody has hacked them up.

Crapes have a fairly slender branching habit much like Japanese Maples, though generally straighter, more vertical, and more vigorous.  The pollarding process that's so rampant actually increases the branch diameter quite a bit more than it would be normally, since the upper energy that's removed in the murdering process focuses that energy into the lower branches and trunk.  The original murdering process is topping all the branches, which is almost never acceptable.  Some people think of topping or heading as only pertaining to the main trunk leader, though it's really applied to any branches, too.  Crapes don't usually have a strang main trunk leader, but rather a number of more or less equal scaffold branches.

Don't ever use this re-murdering technique to show anyone what your pruning skills are.  It's laughable and you'll look like an idiot.  It looks terrible, and IS terrible, but the only remedy.  If you do aethetic pruning for a living, you might well want to avoid doing this at the risk of losing respect.  You should, in fact, try to hide this as much as you can, which is really only by waiting until just before leaf-out so these silly cuts are hidden by lush foliage, if you know when that will be.  You actually must plead your case to everyone who may see the tree.  I found the best way to prove your point is by taking a pic, turning it into a drawing, printing it out, and drawing in what the tree will become after recovery, though there are various stages you need to point out, like after the first year, and after 5 or 6 years with very meticulous attention.  You need to convey that the tree won't look much better than it did before for at least 3 or 4 years, but then again won't look worse.  It would be great to document this process a few times a year for a number of years, but that has its obvious difficulties.

In simple terms, this re-murder involves removing the ugly knuckles/knobs/fists that arose from previous pollarding or topping pruning sessions and reactionary vigorous prolific re-sprouting of narrow shoots out of the tips of those branches, cutting the branch back to where it's a good start for developing new taper, and only allowing one or two new shoots (at the most 3 if there's a big hole to fill and the branch pattern isn't so noticeable in that part of the tree) to develop from that point on each branch until they become a nice extension of the poor mis-handled stump-limbs.  Pruning and pinching several times a year will be needed.  And it may well be embarassing to commit the re-murder and let people see what you've done, while assuring them that you know aht you're doing and it's the right course even though what you did looks almost exactly like the first totally botched pruning catastrophe by someone else that started the whole hot mess.  It's like fixing dryrot.  You have to tear it apart and start over, and there's nothing glamorous or pride-inducing about it.  You then need to determine whether to cut those new shoots during the summer since unchecked they'll grow 3 or 4 feet or maybe even 6 feet or more.  Cutting them will slow down the thickening a bit but increase ramification.  It's all gonna be a matter of cutting back over and over but with intent, and the balance of thickening and ramification and short-term/long-term is a judgment call.

You do need to realize that wherever you make a heading cut to a branch larger than something like 3/4" in diameter, that the transition to new extension branches will probably never be seamless, and the abrupt transition will soften over time but never completely disappear.  So you want to be precise about the angle the branch moves from there to hide the cut as well as move in the right direction.  The new, emerging branch will be angled a bit from the branch it's exiting, probably 3 to 5 degrees, at that point.  That's not always bad, since curving/twisting branches are frequently just a series of slight angles. And the heading cut will create a bit of a collar lump.  But you can train the new leader to be almost in line or go off in any direction you wish.  In most cases, closely in line for a short distance will be best.  Having one new leader on that branch makes it easier to keep the crown from crowding and direct it where you want, but the transition will be more obvious.  2 leaders emerging will look more like a wishbone, but the transition will eventually be less obvious.  If you go the route of the wishbone effect, it's better over time to train one of those two branches to be more dominant and more vertical, acting as the leader in that section, but you have time to figure it out.  What you don't want to do is allow more branches to come out only to remove some later, since each emerging shoot will add girth to the transition, starting the whole crazy swollen knuckle situation all over again.

Rehab of a murdered Crape is pretty rarely done, and exceedingly rarely done right.  I suppose most people who would commit the original heinous act are completely clueless to actually making improvements, really don't care or are misinformed and will continue on doing the same thing every year until there's no hope whatsoever.  And someone who inherits this fiasco is probably unlikely to see the potential.  I can't imagine that there would be a point where the tree could look as good as if it had been properly pruned in the past, or it it had even been totally ignored and left to grow naturally.  Both those conditions are a vast improvement over the butchery that's so commonly practiced.  So really, the best you can hope for is to be terribly diligent about cutting perfectly and often, and in a number of years the results will still be a vast improvement, if not perfect.   There are no guarantees things will look great.  Maybe in 20 years of well-managed growth, things might look almost undetectably normal, but that's a big maybe.  The luxury of having what you'd really like was lost early on.  It would be nice to show people early on before or shortly  after planting that there are really only two good options:  Let the tree grow almost completely unpruned for the duration; or only allow someone who really can do it right to maintain it.  Pruning it incorrectly does nothing but create an ugly tree whilst wasting many hours to do so.  And once you do any moderate to severe pruning, you have to keep doing it forever, or at least for many years.

Worst case, after rehab, the tree just never looks great, or you tire of the frequent care needed, and you cut it down, and either replace it or let a new tree sprout up from the severed trunk at ground level.  If the tree is gonna look terrible anyway, there's no real reason not to give it a couple years and make the best attempt you can and see where it goes.  If you really do decide to ultimately cut it down, it effectively will be like growing a new tree from that point at a much faster rate.  This will probably only work if you let it become a multi-trunk, with 5 or 7 main stems coming up, or one trunk if there's something like shrubs hiding the bottom couple of feet.  And you're gonna get a lot of suckers coming up from the ground and roots that need to be removed constantly.

This is no short-term deal.  The first year is the most critical, and will require plenty of pinching at the tips almost immediately when they emerge, while selectively leaving a lot of the new shoots that should pop up from epicormic (hidden dormant) buds in the lower section of the tree to develop either temporarily to thicken up the lowest section of each branch to increase taper, if needed, or allowing those shoots to become new well-placed secondary branches, since the original ones were unwisely removed due to poor judgment (everyone seems to enjoy removing all secondary branches from Crapes or some peculiar reason).  Most shoots will effectively be water sprouts, and there's nothing you can do about that but remove them or train them into more normal branches.  You'll need to make some cuts and calculate the taper to arrive at a given long-term height, and then maybe cut some limbs again as the canopy clears up enough so you can visualize the outcome.  If the branches you're cutting are big, as large as 3 or 4 inches, then you have to realize that for a taper that looks somewhat normal, you need to allow at least 20 and probably more like 30 times the length of the diameter of that parent branch, so it will ultimately need to be quite a bit taller than you might think.  Removing a 4" branch completely is probably a bad idea unless it can be completely concealed from clear vantage points.  But having a tree be taller and maintained is a lot better than stumpy and small or stumpy plus spindly and medium.  Remember, you can make the tree more airy to lighten up the look or make it so that light comes through or allows you to see out the window or something. And if all you care about is the flowers, but don't care what the tree looks like in winter, or anytime other than when flowering, for that matter, then all this about murder and rehab is irrelevant.

For the first year, to repair things as quickly as possible, you might be sacrificing flowering to some degree or entirely.  This needs to be determined as the replacement branches grow in, and cut them back at the right time.  This gets a bit involved, so stay tuned for further instructions.  If you don't understand where I'm coming from on this, then you probably shouldn't be touching your tree, since you don't understand the tapering, ramification, reaction, and related concepts.  Chances are, it's not an area you studied a lot.  In that case, you can cut it down as described above, hire someone that really knows what they're doing (and the guys on Youtube who say they know how to fix Crapes, really don't), or just live with ugly trees that look pretty good for a few weeks in the Summer (only for the flowers) but look hideous in the Winter and most of the year.  Maybe most people don't notice the issues, but we tree aficionados do.  I suppose if your home is no prize and treating the trees better than you do the home itself may not make sense, though you could argue that a great tree might distract the eye form an eyesore of a home depending on your perspective.  But if you have a great home, then you really want to have very good trees, or things just don't add up.

You can apply all this to other trees, but Crape Myrtles have strangely been the primary target for this operation over the last 20 years or so.  It used to be that Fruitless Mulberry trees were the ones getting all this nonsense, and sycamores to a degree, but they pretty much went by the wayside.  I suppose because the only apparent redeeming quality of mulberry trees to most people was the ability to grow into a sizable tree very quickly, and with sycamores, people are just overwhelmed at the size. This knuckle-worship isn't a good strategy, especially because the people that plant those trees are the same ones who think trees need to be kept small.

Have fun!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cutting Up: Pruning Cuts, Reasons and Exceptions

If you get the hankering to study pruning to any extent, you'll find that the opinions are diverse and contradictory.  Using logic helps much of the time, but much of the time the science doesn't seem intuitive, as biology often exemplifies.

There are certainly many cases where the rules apply almost absolutely, but there are almost always some exceptions, so the words "never" and "always" have to be carefully regarded.  There are certain situations where you have to break a rule for the better good, just like if you have to break into someone's home if it's on fire to save their baby, or drive over the speed limit to outrun a racing tornado.

You first need to understand that much of the information out there is dumbed down.  Those who write or teach realize that very few people will get a comprehensive education, so they make it as simple as they can with some rules to follow.  Better safe than sorry.  But most of the time, the finer points are missed or just disregarded.  If you're one of those that just shrugs your shoulders, it's really best to find someone who knows what they're doing.  Once they do what they need to do, then maybe you can do maintenance following their examples.  If your tree hasn't been touched in years, or has been badly pruned, like most trees have, just once, hire an aesthetic pruner who knows what to do.  Well worth it.

Generally, you hear about only two types of pruning cuts, thinning and heading.  Well, it's more complicated than that.  Let's go on.....

THINNING is a type of cut where you remove a whole branch.  Can be a huge branch or a tiny branch.  It can be removed to a larger or parent branch, or to the trunk.

This is almost always the preferred cut.  Confusion abounds, where people think that thinning means taking a lot of branches out of the middle of the tree and leaving almost all the branches except for the bare minimum major branches, at the very fringes of the tree.  This is wrong.  I'll explain why a bit later.

HEADING is generally the other cut you hear about.  This is basically when you just cut off the end of a branch or tip of the trunk or main vertical leader.  With anything bigger than a fraction of an inch, these cuts usually look terrible and are ill-advised.  But once in a while, they're the best option or necessary.  In most trees, if you make a heading cut, the end becomes blunt and stays that way, unless a new branch sprouts from that point.  It may or may not depending on the situation. And if it does, it may go off in a weird direction that won't look good.  HOWEVER, if you prune roses, pruning is generally made up of a bunch of heading cuts.  In most trees, heading cuts are almost always avoidable if you follow a yearly proper pruning regimen and never let things get too far.

RE-LEADERING is a term you'll rarely see, and is generally reserved for those who know their stuff.  Consider it a combination heading and thinning cut, from which you'll train a new leader or growing tip.  This is done all the time in bonsai, but in landscape trees it has to be carefully considered.  HOWEVER, if a branch is growing lengthy and lanky, and you want to promote tapering or side branching (ramification), cutting the tip back to a smaller branch or bud that's heading in the right direction would be smart.  In reality re-leadering more like thinning, but back to a branch that either doesn't really exist yet or doesn't quite have enough oomph, even though you know it's there waiting to do its thing.

I use this technique a lot, since I'm very big on proportion and tapering, and re-leadering is frequently the only way to get there.  Since apical dominance is so powerful, sometimes a branch wants to head straight out and never look back.  This conflicts with creating important side branching and can weaken the branch and mess up the proportions.  With re-leadering, you want to avoid cutting anything larger than about 1/2" in most cases, but you need to know what the results will be in any situation.  If it's a huge tree, maybe a bit bigger, say up to an inch or more, and on small trees, maybe 1/4" is a bit too big.  In any case, it's usually smart not to cut back to anything less than 1/3 the diameter of what you're removing.  And it's also best to avoid taking off more than 25% of a given branch, since taking more than that can sometimes lead to die-off, since what's left doesn't have enough vigor, or it can sprout profusely since that removed energy has to go somewhere.

It's best to take out branches before they get to be no larger than about 2" in diameter, since above that thickness requires much more time to callous over.  We're very careful not to use the word "heal", since unlike human skin that eventually becomes just like the original in most cases, think of a branch wound as an injury that remains either an open wound or a scab FOREVER.  Trees are very susceptible to rotting within the branch column under certain conditions.  The larger the wound, the more likely the rot, not to mention the ugliness.  In all fairness, some wounds are actually pretty cool looking if they get a nifty ring around the collar.  In bonsai, these wounds can enhance the apparent age, but these aren't always desirable.  In most cases, it's advised to cut back to a branch that's at least 1/3 the diameter of the branch you remove.

TOPPING is when you simply cut off the top of a leader or trunk, with no regard to how it looks or will respond.  This almost always looks terrible, and unless the tree is about to hit something, or has a bizarre protruding angle, or is dead or diseased, there's no reason to do it.  EXCEPT if someone else has already done it, and in the course of making it right, you actually need to cut it back even more, as is the case with re-murdering Crape Myrtles that have been previously murdered.  People do this a lot with Fruitless Mulberry trees too, and they always look terrible in the dormant season.  No reason exists to do this.  Why have a terrible tree instead of putting a good one in its place, and making sure it fits?

Re-leadering could technically be considered a form of topping if done on a trunk or vertical branch, though refined and with good reason.  So anytime you see it stated that topping is NEVER ok, well, there are some exceptions.  But generally it's a terrible thing to do to anything bigger than maybe 3/4" in diameter.  And you'd better know what the heck you're doing.

LIONTAILING is the practice where people cut most branches out except for a few major ones, and leave almost all the branching at the fringes.  This may actually look ok at a glance, but it eliminates most of the taper which is so important to branches, visually and for strength.  What you really want in most cases is one heavy trunk, a few beefy major scaffold branches, a number of secondary branches coming off of those,  and then finer and finer branches multiplying all the way out to the tips.  There's probably some equation out there that makes sense of how many branches and what size they should be at any point within the tree, but it would be quite variable from tree to tree and always changing as a tree grows.  I really find most people really don't get this, including lots of arborists and nursery growers.  There's an artistic sensibility.  There's also the need to understand how some branches are purely temporary.  You may leave them near the base of a branch to increase bulk at that point, but remove them before the removal scar creates problems.

WATER SPROUTS are almost always to be avoided.  These are the reactionary sprouts that shoot up vertically following pruning or injury, or other stresses, and some will happen with almost no apparent encouragement.  In almost all cases, these are to be removed.  I would sometimes leave these in place if I want to fatten up a branch at that point, and remove them before they're the size of a pencil.  And if you get a bunch of these in the Spring, or after a flush of growth, it's a good idea to rub them off or cut them when they just emerge.  Even if you rub them off, some will re-emege, and it may have to be done several times until the tree settles down.  But in some cases, these sprouts may become a viable secondary branch.  Probably not if they're coming right out of the top of the parent branch.  But I guess a water sprout by definition is really a vertical shoot heading straight up.  You'll see these in most vigorous trees, and perhaps the most obvious is plum trees and birches.  I just pruned a mature Valley Oak that had some, in response to some major (not good) pruning by the utility company to keep a chunk of the tree from messing up phone or power lines.  These companies lack much desire to prune correctly.  They want to spend 1/2 hour removing a big chunk instead of 3 or 4 hours making it look good and equally avoiding the impending entanglement.  My job is now to try to get that tree to balance out better over time.  This will take a long time, since the tree is already at least 50 years old.   But even a compromised Valley Oak is usually a pretty cool tree.

Well, maybe this strayed a bit from the main subject, but these are all connected points.  Hopefully I made some sense out of it.  I'm sure some professionals may disagree a bit on some of the terminology and remedies, but it's mostly dead-on, at least in practice.


TreeDawg out.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Thick at the Base, Thin at the Tip: Trunk and Branch Taper

Taper is one of the most overlooked issues with tree pruning, and perhaps causes the most problems that allow trees to get destroyed by wind or snow.  The problem is that a trunk or heavy branch can't be strong if there's not enough taper, or if there's too much weight only at the ends.  It can't always support the weight it's holding including its own, especially if there's fruit or heavy flowers.  And it really just doesn't look right and shows a history of neglect or improper pruning.  If you want to keep a tree a desired size, at least in the near term, it's imperitive that you encourage tapering so that once it's the desired size you can't go back and start over.  Tapering gives you more options.

The tricky part is determining how much taper there should be.  A trunk and main branches will ever increase in diameter over the years, and you can't stop it.  You can slow it down or speed it up with various techniques.  Eventually, the trunk diameter will be a good proportion to the overall height, but if the taper is lacking, it won't look right no matter what the base diameter.

There are some different patterns that dictate the amount of taper to a degree.  Willows and maples and some birches and various other trees are known to be more slender, so the amount of taper isn't as obvious.  But take a look at an old oak tree, and you'll usually see great taper throughout the tree, unless someone has pruned it incorrectly.  That's one of the reasons the trees look (and are) so strong.  Like a muscleman with thick upper arms, tapering to fairly thin wrists, instead of looking like Popeye.

In bonsai, taper is usually much more encouraged.  Some of these old trees are merely 2 or 3 times as tall as the diameter of the trunk, and the trees look very old and permanent and strong.  I have a little olive tree with about a 3" diameter base that's only about 10" or 12" tall, but I got it that way from a previous bosai grower and frankly the taper is too abrupt and needs refinement.   I strive for a minimum 20 to 1 ratio in all my trees in my collection.  In landscape trees, however, you'll never achieve a ratio of probably 10 to 1 or better in your lifetime, at least not in a good way.

As a very rough estimate, without studying many trees with a tape measure, I would probably see good trunk taper as anything more tapered than about 30 to 1, height to base trunk diameter, and 20 to 1 is really good.  Once again, I wouldn't expect the latter thickness to be common on a Japanese Maple or a Willow, but on more stocky trees, it's something to strive for.  And the taper should really be fairly even all the way to the top, ending at a mere tiny stem at the tip.

Branches wouldn't have this kind of taper, but I would say that in the range of between 30 to 1 and 75 to 1 is pretty good.  But you'll often see trees with almost no taper, and the branches might be 200 to 1!  Pear trees commonly have nearly untapered branches, and this is one of their downsides.  Do what you can to avoid this.

So for a good example, if you have an adolescent ornamental tree that's 20 feet tall, maybe the same width or maybe wider, the trunk should be 8 to 12" in diameter, and thicker as it gets old.  A 3" branch coming off the trunk at about 6' off the ground should be from about 8' long to say 15' long, while keeping it all in proportion (height to width of the tree while tapering of branches thoughout).  This takes some thought and planning and a good aesthetic sense.

Proper pruning will also allow you to control the direction better, and promoting more horizontal branching than vertical is usually better, even in fastigate or upright trees like poplars or liquidambers, some birches, and lots of conifers.

Of course, as you bring a tree home from the nursery, they're usually 6' to 10' tall, with a base diameter of about 3/4" to 1-1/2".  Nobody's gonna wait for great tapering before putting it in the ground.  They want to get the trees in the ground and on their way.  And then they stake the tree so it won't fall over or curve too much, though staking weakens the tree, and in my opinion makes trees grow too perfectly straight.    So it'll take at least 7 to 10 years in most cases before the trees get decent trunks and scaffold branches.  As a side note, remove those stakes as early as you can.  I've seen trees with stakes left in for 20 years or more, with the trunk growing around and devouring the big black rubber band.  That REALLY shows that people paid no attention to their trees after the first couple years.

I'll keep working on this and see if I can get some better numbers and some pictures to demonstrate.  In the meantime, give this some attention when you start to prune a tree.  Strive for even tapering, never blunt tips of long, untapered branches.  Ramification is so important.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

How Much is That Dogwood in the Window?: Economics of Tree Care

The mentality people have when it comes to spending money is usually stunning.  And it seems that almost every person has priorities that seem ludicous to others.  They HATE spending money on this, even if it's practical, but don't even think about splurging on some things that don't make a lot of senes in many cases.  I'll get to trees in a minute, but this part puts things in some perspective.  Here are a few examples:

1.  Tons of people will do anything they can to avoid paying for their kids' education more than they have to, but are happy to shell out tens of thousands for a car, or buy a much larger home than they need or really can afford, and will spend hours commuting each week to get to it.

2.  A large percentage of people spend thousands, or even tens of thousands, to bury the dead.  I get that it's an emotional thing, but regardless of your religion or other beliefs, a dead body is pretty much of little value, and the soul is what counts, but it has left the body by that point.  So the body is really just a bunch of chemicals and minerals that need no special, expensive treatment.  I'll be perfectly happy if I'm put into a Hefty bag at my demise, and left on the curb on Friday morning.  If you really want to go to some effort, plant a tree in my honor.

3.  People are really hesitant to spend money on good health care, but have no problem spending tens of thousands on jewelry, when they can get beautiful jewelry that looks every bit as good for a tiny fraction.

4.  A lot of people have no issue with splurging on incredibly expensive football tickets, especially the Suer Bowl, or fancy vacations with hotel rooms that cost perhaps thousands per night.  For a place to sleep, when you really should spend that time touring the place you went to all the trouble to get to.

OK, you get my point.  So on to how trees fit into all this.

Most people who own a fairly nice home or condo pay thousands or tens of thousands to landscape, and quite a bit each year to maintain their landscapes.  Most homeowners will spend at least $100 a month just to have lawns mowed and leaves blown every week or two.  But these same people would never think about spending a few hundred per year to maintain their trees, even though they're permanent and just as important as or more important than a temporary lawn.  A mature tree can't be easily replaced, and it might be worth tens of thousands in value to the home, whereas a lawn can be easily replaced for a small fraction of that.  And you dont have to water a tree much, if at all, whereas grass is very thirsty.

People give little thought to the quality of pruning, and spend money to have good trees butchered by people who don't know what they're doing, mostly because they don't know any better, but also because they're cheapskates.  Or they get the brilliant idea that they can do a good job themselves, but this is highly unlikely.  They pay to have leaves raked, which takes very little skill, but plunge into pruning trees themselves, which takes much skill.  Not so smart.

If you figure a tree should really be pruned twice a year, EVERY YEAR, or at least once a year minimum, as I maintain, then you might be paying $100 or $200 for a very nice tree per year, which will look good all year, including the leafless winter.  You have to figure out for yourself how much this costs for your whole property, but it's unlikely that it will be more than mow and blow.

I was included in a discussion with a very in-demand aesthetic pruner, who does high-end work.  He has clients that have paid thousands or more for a single Japanese Maple, and they gladly pay a few hundred each year per tree to keep them healthy and happy.  You mess those puppies up, and you threw a bunch of money away on a tree that can never be great again.

Keep in mind that the more infrequently you prune a tree, the more it costs per session to prune.  And it basically never can look great or be as healthy as possible if you wait too long.  Common sense tells you that paying twice a year for minor pruning will cost more than major pruning every 5 years, but the cost difference may not be as much as you think.  You might also use that reasoning of infrequency and think that maybe you just mow your lawn 2 or 3 times a year but leave it looking ratty most of the time.   But hardly anyone with a lick of sense would do that.

Give this some thought, and really understand how important your trees are, and why you're probably neglecting them.  Or hacking them up.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Trees in My Collection, "A"

Some pics are my trees, others are just stock photos, mostly off Pinterest.

Pic pending

Apple, Fuji.  Malus pumila

Apple, unknown
Pic pending

Acacia, "Cousin It"  Acacia cognata cousin itt

Acacia, Weeping  Acacia pendula 


Angel's Trumpet Yellow  Brugmansia Candida

Aralia, Snowflake  Trevesia palmata

Arbutus Marina, variegated

Arbutus Unedo

Athrotaxus laxifolia

Azalea "Ron Kuzon"

The Evil of All Roots: How Trees and Roots Should Expose Themselves

I've been learning more about how roots factor in the equation of a terrific tree.  Well, as it seems most folks usually think about a tree, they think of the overall shape and size first, foliage and flowers second, branching third, bark fourth, and other things like fruit and leaf change in autumn in various degrees of importance.  Your take may be a bit different, and mine certainly is, but that's kinda the normal way we prioritize what we see.

Roots are pretty much ignored.  They're down at the bottom, covered with dirt, so there's not much to see.  But ponder this a bit and your perspective will change.

In bonsai, roots are important to the whole presentation.  Root flare is called nebari, and it's pretty difficult to achieve an excellent system of this.  It's especially hard when we get a potted plant with roots what weren't managed well from the nursery days.  We can learn from a good bonsai nebari with landscape trees.  If we think of the roots as they exit the trunk, they're indeed part of the trunk, and can be just as interesting in many cases, maybe more so in some.  It's a hoot to see a bunch of tentacles radiating out, grabbing the ground, holding on for dear life, and fading into the ground inches or feet away.  Some of the most interesting trees in the world have roots as a huge part of their allure.  Think of one of those huge banyan/ficus trees like in Jurassic Park, or a Bald Cypress with roots and knees from the roots coming up from the ground and water.  Or think about arial roots.  If you haven't seen them on a real tree, they're powerful cool.

Anyway, as it turns out, it's much better for the tree to have the top of their immediate roots exposed right as they exit the trunk.  There's some rot and pest issues and stuff if they're covered over with dirt or mulch or other such nonsense.  As it turns out, if you mulch, you're supposed to keep it away from the immediate tree.  The feeder roots that are actually doing all the hard work are further away, so there's no reason the big fat roots need water.  And it's better to keep those puppies dry right there.  Actually, the tree was supposed to be elevated a bit during planting so water drains away from it. but in most cases trees are planted too low.

I'll have more to say about this later, but this is a good start.

Be a Tree Dawg Knight!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wonderful tree #3: Silk Floss Tree

Silk Floss Tree, AKA Floss Silk Tree, AKA Ceiba speciosa, AKA Chorisia speciosa.

This is such a great tree, with so many outstanding features, it's hard to know where to start.  First of all, it's hard to mistake this tree for anything else.  Once you see it, you'll recognize more of them easily.

The trunk is hugely swollen as it gets older, which I always love.  Apparently it stores water like a Baobab or a camel or a waterbed.  Then, it has these Hershey's Kisses or nipple-shaped spikes, which are interesting if not attractive to everyone.  These are so prominent that I call this a Titty Tree.  This does, however, make the tree unhuggable unless you like pain.  At least you could scratch your back on the trunk.  Or your front.  But that might look funny.  Then, the trunk is largely green, which isn't common in mature trees.  Looks fresh.  And if that's not enough, the flowers are outstanding.  Add on the silk floss fibers that are useful, and the fruit, which isn't.  Looks like a cucumber, I've heard.

I've seen quite a few of these at arboretums, usually in mild climates.  Southern California and Florida are perfect.  There are a few in Oakland.  I know the Oakland Zoo has a few.  I'm told the biggest one in these United States is in Bel Air at the Bel Air Hotel.  Ooh, fancy.  I'm also told it may be recognized as the most beeeeautiful tree in the country.

So they used to make pillows and life preservers and stuff from the silk floss, which apparently is pretty darn good stuff.  Maybe they use it around the world still. I don't suppose you could use it for dental floss, but maybe.

 I have one of these that's about 4' tall and has a 3" trunk diameter, which is quite thick for such a young tree of any specie.  Having anything that's 3" thick when you're young is impressive.

To be continued..................

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

So Disagreeable Like on Capitol Hill: Experts Confuse the Pruning Universe

I don't know if I've seen any other subject besides politics and pruning, where the experts and people we look to for guidance can so disagree on fundamentals.

I can't say most of them are wrong, but approaches can be quite contrary.  I've read hundreds of articles on most aspects of pruning.  The only thing I can do is try to understand where they're coming from, see if there's a consensus, throw out what doesn't make sense, put some logic to it, apply personal experience, and in many cases think outside the box.

I believe that most writers on the subject realize that teaching someone all about pruning within a short article is really hard without the reader losing patience.  And the reader may have little, if any experience on the subject. Because of this, most articles really tend to dumb things down to the point where the student can't screw things up too badly or poke their eye out or fall off a ladder or cut their finger off, but they miss the mark on some of the finer or more confusing points.

You should also understand that most people simply ignore their trees for extended periods, then over-prune to make up for it.  I never recommend this, but since it's human nature, the guides tend to reflect this approach.

You'll see most articles focus on how to cut properly, but spend less time on where and why to cut or not cut this or that, and consequences of every cut.  I find that the instructions on how to cut are usually accurate and quite good.  Since you can find these instructions everywhere, I tend to avoid spending much time on that.  I spend much more time preaching about the where, why, and when.

I see perhaps the most confusing subject is when to prune this or that.  You'll usually see it mentioned that most trees and shrubs should be pruned during late winter, early spring, or summer, depending on the specie, when it flowers, and your goal.  I rarely see anything mentioned about how your climate affects this timing.  This is puzzling.  If you live in Miami, shouldn't your timing be different than if you're in Fargo?  Maybe it doesn't change that much with certain species, or a specific tree simply doesn't grow in your location, so the point may be meaningless at times.

Plenty of articles deal with timing your pruning for maximum flowering or fruiting benefit.  They're pretty much on the mark, but they don't deal with some finer issues about pruning throughout the year, which I write about a lot.  Many articles deal with trees that are problematic, either because they catch disease easily or bleed heavily b or respond to pruning in notable ways.  But some of this advice may be contradictory.  For instance, pruning a birch or elm during the summer may be best to avoid bleeding or water sprouts, etc., but the cuts can attract well-known pests that can kill the tree.  So it seems most articles reflect the better decision, though you have to learn more to make the right decision.  Once again, as I can't mention often enough, frequent, minor pruning is much better than infrequent, major pruning.

I have a post or two that deal with timing.  My rationale is a based on many hours of research, and as things progress, my approach may change somewhat, just as it may change from one individual tree to another of the same specie.

Regarding thinning, heading back, topping, pollarding, Crape Murder, butchery, etc. I have very strong feelings about all of these treatments and those opinions run rampant throughout my posts.  Be very careful while watching videos.  Much more often than not, the ones that claim to show you the right way, don't.

Isn't this fun?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Things Almost All Pruners Get Wrong

Almost everyone who trims trees gets at least some of these things wrong.  All these issues are discussed in detail in my other posts, so I'm only going to touch briefly on these items here.

In order, these are the most common errors I see in almost every managed tree:

Too many branches originating from the same point.  Branches should be staggered.  Bonsai artists are usually exceptionally diligent about this, and everyone else can learn a lesson from their styling.  Unfortunately, if you don't avoid them very early, you're stuck with them for good and have to make the best of it.

These branches overwhelm the tree's balance, especially in relation to the trunk, create weakness, and just don't look good.  This is equally caused by over- AND under-pruning, ironically usually simultaneously.

Once you play catch-up, it's a long recovery that may never turn out right.

Cutting out way too many secondary/intermediate branches, leaving almost all growth at the very fringes.  Good thinning does not remove everything below the top.  Ramification throughout the tree is important.

A tree will always look pruned (not in a good way) if you cut the tips off the branches, pretty much anything larger than the thickness of a pencil.  This also leads to over-thinning the canopy if you're thinning out the ramified tips too much.  Sometimes, however, this is necessary and good plans will correct this remedy within short order.

These are hard to avoid after major pruning in some trees and usually look bad and are unhealthy, so diligent management is key.  Frequent, minor pruning is much better.  Pruning more than about 25% in most trees is best avoided, and with good, frequent pruning, more than 10% should rarely be needed.

Branches should exit from the trunk at angles that increase strength and look good.  Included bark is best avoided.

This is the queen mother of all pruning mistakes, along with its little brothers, pollarding and Crape Murder.  Luckily, most people realize topping is just a terrible thing to do in almost all circumstances.  Unfortunately, most people are guilty of pollarding to a point, whether unintentional or semi-intentional.

Ok.  Pay attention to this in your own trees, learn about and check out what a really good tree looks like, and be careful who attacks your trees.  Pruning is, after all, an attack from which it must recover.  You can assault it with infrequent bloody violence or give it a frequent attack of sweet, sweet love.  You decide.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Why Pruning Your Trees is Like Raising a Kid

We can all agree that most people can do a better job of raising their kids, right?  Well, suppose the worst parents of all are just oblivious or are repeating some pretty mediocre parenting they received.  If they spent just a tiny amount of time learning about ways to better help their kids grow, it would radically make everything better with even less energy spent in the long run.  We get some training for almost everything else we do in life, why not for parenting, and tree trimming?  By the way, learning from the people on tabloid TV or MTV, or from the guys that stand in front of the liquor store, not the best teachers.

The way I see it, managing your trees is like raising a kid.  Unfortunately, people don't realize for any tree to be a great tree, you have to pay attention to it a few times a year, even if you don't make a single cut.  Trimming it every few years or even less often than that is like ignoring every aspect of what your kid is up to and hoping you can play catch-up, when the kid is all grown up.

For starters, unless you got the tree when it was only a few inches to about 18" tall, someone else already trained it just like a minimum-wage someone raising a baby for you until it's about 3 or 4 years old.  The problem is, nurseries raise trees like they're only expected to be able to be tall and dunk a basketball and nothing else.  No muscle tone and little regard for being a well-rounded individual.

From that point, people may plant a tree and give it just a little bit of trimming at that moment, then do almost nothing else for at least a couple seasons.  The may stake it, which would sorta be like giving your kid a jacket but no pants.  The initial pruning was almost certainly not well-planned or executed.  Staking itself isn't usually a perfect plan, and there's a good argument for NOT staking a young tree, which is like providing a crutch.  One good thing, is that most very young growth is only temporary and pretty easy to correct, sorta like diapers you just throw away instead of an expensive suit that has to last for years.

So a few years go by.  Some of the branches are too long or too large in relation to the size of the tree, or in the wrong place.  So they may get cut back or cut off.  Maybe that's good, but if it's not done right, it's like taking a license away from an underage driver AFTER they got a DUI.  But the kid didn't even understand heavy drinking could lead to any problems.

Jump ahead until the kid is now 15 or 20 years old.  Neglecting pruning every year (or worse, IMPROPER pruning) up to that point is like not paying attention to any of their schooling, physical shape, or habits, and the kid just isn't right.  So you try really hard to correct things, but you need to realize he can never be a world-class anything, but very average at best unless he goes to military school.  You may have such an untrained eye that you don't even see how mediocre your child became.  Not to berate you, because very, very few people have a good eye for a really good tree, including most professionals.  It would be like looking inside a computer and having no idea what any of the doo-dads do.  It's not your fault.  You just weren't trained in such manners.  Imagine if you could suddenly have Steve Wozniak show you what it all means and how to make your laptop run much faster.

There just happens to be another kid in the neighborhood who had good teachers and good parenting.  He never gets in trouble, his clothes are always clean and wrinkle-free, he can have any job he wants and the girls all are giddy around him.  You know how they tell us that we have the potential to be anything?  Trees all start out with an even slate, pretty much. The upbringing accounts for almost all of what it becomes.

So then we get to the point where your little guy is now an adult, say 30 years old.  He's out of shape, clothes are torn, he's in the hospital all the time with infections, has bad habits, and no amount of therapy can be equal to what a great upraising could have accomplished.  Even if you spend thousands, the best that you can hope for is average.  No chance at winning the lottery, even.

Meanwhile, someone else who spent an hour or less 2 or 3 times a year, has a son that turned out great in every way. He needs no rehab, and ends up like someone who had a fantastic but cheap education every year with straight A's compared with someone who went to first-grade and got a D-minus, dropped out of school,  then got an occasional poorly-trained but expensive tutor, and suddenly his parents thought spending a ton to send him to Stanford would make up for all the bad times.

Suppose you spent $100 per year maintaining this wonderful tree, and once it's 30 years old, it only needs to go to a refresher class once or twice a year for an hour.  But this other crappy tree had to be chopped down, or have thousands in rehabilitation costs, along with repairs by a second-rate mechanic who can't do anything about all the dents that can never be fixed.

Which kid would you rather raise?  Which TREE would you rather raise?

Not doing any pruning at all until adulthood comes around is asking for trouble.  Having a completely unqualified pruner trim your tree now and then is like having a drug dealer raise your kid and beat him up.  It's even worse than letting the kid raise himself.

This is all why almost every tree has big problems, at least aesthetically.  Only thing is, most of the problems are unrecognized because the observer can't see what's wrong either because they're not trained to look for things, or because things look good on the surface.  Meanwhile, the best examples of fine trees are in meticulously-maintained parks or Disneyland, where everyone can see how nice they are, even if they can't really pinpoint what's so great.  They just know that they're good examples.  They may wish their trees looked this good, but alas it's too late.  Most of the time.

Suppose your kid was born with a genetic anomaly that requires surgery after they become an adult.  It would be really nice to get the best surgeon you could, to give him the best chance to lead a normal or even exceptional life.  Getting someone who really knows how to work with trees is like having Dr. House, who tends to be able to figure out the best possible remedy while others are just scratching their heads and hanging out in the cafeteria and prescribing the wrong drugs and irritating the impatient patients.  Hopefully your surgeon knows his stuff and isn't so grumpy.

Of course there are other aspects to having great trees, like proper watering, fertilizing, mulching, etc , so pay some attention to those things, too.  But all those things pale in comparison to proper pruning.

Think about your trees early on, frequently, for the long term, and don't ever let butchers get ahold of them under any circumstances.  You'll be super proud of them like your kid growing up to be both an astronaut and brain surgeon with muscular arms, gorgeous hair, dry-cleaned outfits, and nice shoes.  And guess what?  It likely didn't cost much more in the long run to raise them this well than if you totally neglected them until they're in jail, needing an expensive lawyer and a nutritionist and some smokes.

Be a TreeDawg Knight!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Promoting & Perpetuating Potentially Perfect Plant Pruning, Perennially

If you want to make a tree be the best it can possibly be, it takes a little work every year.  As much as nature helps, no such thing as a naturally perfect tree.  The concept that it's best to let nature take care of it isn't accurate.  I'll explain more about that specifically in another post.

ISA standards are proudly followed by the best pruners and arborists, but there's a lot more to it than that.  In some cases, you have to break the rules for the greater good.  Knowing when to do this is an art.  Since most pruners see it as a job and not an art, they usually fall short of the best results, usually by a large margin.  It sometimes can be worse if a client dictates that they want things a certain way, or want a more conservative or aggressive approach than what is really the best long-term need

As far as what I strive for in pruning a tree perfectly over the long term, these are the goals:

The ultimate goal of any pruning undertaking should be to conceal all evidence that pruning ever took place.  Overcoming this paradox takes great long-term planning.  I once saw a Beech tree at a show that was renowned for its great balance and taper and lack of visible scars.  It was as flawless as Grace Kelly.  The tree was probably about 2 feet tall and at least 20 or 30 years old.  This nearly perfect, natural-looking tiny tree was the result of meticulous, frequent, strategic pruning.  Removing or pinching back a branch at just the right time will reduce or eliminate obvious scarring.  Ideally, branches should be cut when they're small enough to heal/seal over within 2 or 3 years, or at least a relatively short time.  Any branches over about 1-1/2" in diameter will leave scarring for years, maybe forever.  However, if you cut back or remove branches too early, this can reduce tapering and induce sparse branching.  This timing and balance is difficult for most pruners to achieve or even understand.

A thick, tapered trunk will reveal some history, strength and permanence.  The trunk by virtue of its texture, shape and bark may also be the most interesting feature a tree has to offer.  Careful long-term planning and pruning is needed to achieve a terrific trunk.  Just like how our torsos are more important than our arms and legs.  But thick isn't necessarily good for us.  I have a ratio in mind, of between 20-to-1 and 30-to-1, of the height of the tree in relation to its trunk diameter near the base, tapering to zero at the top.  This is good taper.  Very young trees won't have this ratio unless you work really hard at it, but mature trees can almost all achieve this with the exception of some naturally stubborn skinny species.  But even those species can be optimized.  Older trees take on a ratio that may be more like 10-1 or less, which is really solid.

Wouldn't we all like this?  For various reasons, all trees have branches that just die.  Some we can prevent, others we can't.  Some branches get diseased or damaged.  Some pose an imminent danger of breaking or otherwise causing destruction.  We need to remove these as soon as possible.  If we don't, the wind and gravity might do it for us, or disease can spread the branch itself.  Removing death, damage, danger and disease should be the first step each time you prune.  For whatever reason, real or perceived, a living branch can't exist if there's a dead one in the way.  Removing dead wood tends to invigorate a tree.

This is where almost everyone misses the mark.  Too often, you see a whole bunch of branches emerge from the same point about 6 to 8 feet off the ground, grow with inadequate tapering, proportion and angle, bypass important intermediate branches (ramification), and finish with a burst of most of the branches and foliage at the outer edges.  Frequent, proper pruning will promote better distribution and balance, creating a far better-looking and healthier tree.  Having this ramification is also important so that there is a replacement branch fairly close by in case another branch dies or otherwise has to go, thus reducing bare areas like in Charlie Brown's Xmas tree.  Snoopy and Linus can't fix that problem.  Only time and spiffy actions can, best case.

Whenever you see whorls (more than one branch coming out of the trunk or another branch in one spot), it's redundant.  A trunk or branch should extend a bit before another branch emerges.  Whorls create ugly bulges and eliminate attractive, staggered branching patterns that are much preferred.  Some species naturally produce whorls, and in cases where the specie is naturally symmetrical, like a blue spruce or Auracarias, for example, you respect that look.  In most other cases, like Japanese Maples, this inherent whorl pattern can and should be reduced or eliminated in the big picture for a more pleasing look.

Simply put, the thickness or length of a branch should not "compete" with the trunk.  The trunk is king, The ratio may be hard to target, but generally a branch should be no more than half the diameter of the trunk where they meet and depart.  Length is harder to pinpoint.  The closer you get to the top of the tree, the less dominant a branch should be.  I frequently see White Birches where 3/4 of the way up, a branch emerges just way too thick and long.  While this attribute in people might well excite their friends, once you start noticing it in trees, it will gnaw at you like a stain on a necktie, and may be where your eye goes first.  In the case of a co-dominant leader, the trunk is nearly equally split in two, either from pruning an existing trunk to become two trunks, or from a branch getting a little too cocky and showing up the boss.  More often than not, one leader is better than two.  Japanese Maples are frequently trained to have two leaders primarily to increase their real or perceived width.

Most trees look better and are stronger with a more horizontal rather than vertical branching pattern.  Certain species, such as White Birches, tend to be more vertical.  Even in these trees, doing what you can to enhance a more horizontal pattern is a good thing.

The most interesting trees, aside from super-straight species like Coast Redwoods, have branches that curve or twist, a little or a lot.  Valley oaks are most notable for this curvy growth pattern.  Branches that keep going straight for a long distance tend to indicate under- or over-pruning, and it's just not very interesting.  Proper pruning will promote some curvature, as well as good taper, strength and ramification.  And vertical water spouts/sprouts, so often mentioned in my posts, are to be avoided at all costs once they get bigger than about a pencil.

This is a really hard ratio to pinpoint.  It can depend on the specie, age, size, or preference.  Essentially, you want enough foliage distributed throughout the tree, not just at the very outside, to avoid large voids, but also to allow light and air to penetrate.  Japanese Maples are known for having a delicate, airy texture, with the branching being a large part of the appeal.  Waterfall-type maples generally have more dense foliage, especially at the edges.  Even in those cases where they look great, it would be better for the tree to be opened up a bit and retain some inner branching.

Nothing is more obvious in pruning than when someone cuts the end of a branch tip off so that it's larger than about the thickness of a pencil, and in smaller or more delicate trees, less than that, perhaps 1/8 or 3/16".  Now, during restorative pruning, some of this is unavoidable, but it's better to make it a long-term goal to keep all the branch tips tiny.  FYI, cutting the tip off a branch is called a "heading cut".  Some pruning guides discourage heading cuts, but they're not bad in all cases, and quite beneficial or even necessary in some cases.  You just have to know when.

OK. In case you haven't caught my other articles, I frequently mention "Crape Murder".  You need to have a good understanding of this, or you really won't understand good pruning at all.  What this term refers to is when the branches are cut off very bluntly at the very outside, with the additional removal of most inner secondary branches.  In the spring following this dastardly treatment, the tips of each of the blunt branches explode into multiple, up to a dozen or more, mostly vertical shoots that grow so quickly, long and skinny, that they can't support the weight of the coming flowers or even their own wood and foliage, and they flop over like a sad wet green and magenta noodle. This process is repeated year after year, and each year the tree looks a bit worse until it's utterly hideous.   And the removal of all the inner branches over time left nothing to take over in case you want to remove some of these stocky branches. People prune other trees this way, but it's especially common in Crape Myrtles and Mulberry trees.  Whatever convinced someone to prune this way, it's never a good idea and can't be justified in the long term.  Liontailing refers to removing all inner branching and foliage so that all of it's on the very outside.  Not good.  Now, once you have this problem with your trees, it'a long process to repair with very diligent, thoughtful pruning that itself won't look great for a few years, but it's like heart surgery, cleaning your garage, or repainting a car.  It gets a bit uglier before it gets better.  At this point you can't take a conservative approach, and pruning and pinching several times per year is required to get things back on track until it recovers.  Luckily, Crape Myrtles, Mulberries, and other vigorous trees that people torment this way are great at recovering from aggressive rehabilitation, even to the point where some trees are cut down to the ground to start all over.

Thinning is the most common cut.  You take it a branch entirely or back to a point where a lateral branch will take its place.  Thinning will remove mass if there's too much, or eliminate crossing, rubbing, oddly-directed or parallel branches.  If you're removing a portion of a branch back to a lateral/descendant branch, then that branch that becomes the new tip should be at least 1/3 the diameter of that you cut off at that point.  This will help keep taper appropriate, and also vigor in a branch that's too small may not be enough to sustain the growth, or the point of cutoff actually could explode in a pollarding style  and then you have a we're lot of little branches to deal with.  Whenever you make a thinning cut, or heading cut for that matter, new growth will tend to occur either from that point or further inside the tree, usually some of each.

Some of the most important branches are the ones that are temporary.  Technically, almost all branches are temporary, until new ones emerge and develop and older ones die or lose their importance.  In many cases, we knowingly let branches stick around just long enough to do a task, knowing all the while that they're doomed within a year or two.  Most notably, a branch may be needed lower on a parent branch to help thicken the parent in and around that point.  But if we don't like it, we cut it off when it gets to about 1/4", and nobody realizes was there or removed.  But if tree branch grows into something we like, we can just leave it.  We may not particularly like the look of a tempest branch, but the long-term benefit may outweigh the immediate need for beauty.

Branches may come out of a trunk at almost any angle.  They usually come out pretty perpendicular in a left/right orientation, and usually anywhere from 90 degrees (straight out horizontal) to nearly vertical.  The closer to vertical it is, the weaker it will be, since the nearly parallel wood to the trunk can split easily.  It's best to have an angle at least 30 degrees from vertical, and 45 is better.  90 is a bit much to ask for in certain trees.  Many, if not most conifers have more horizontal branching.  Though you can't do a lot to determine the angle a branch comes out, you can decide which branch among others close together has the best properties, and remove others that may be a problem.  For pruning purposes, you can nudge the branch in a certain direction over time, but the origination angle is pretty well set in wood.  Some trees that tend to naturally have more vertical branching, like European white birches, maybe the best you can do is just go for the branches that have a few degrees difference, provided all other deciding factors are equal.  Bark inclusion is also a consideration.  I'll go into that in another post, or you can research that subject on your own.

You'll often be told that you shouldn't try to limit the size of a tree, but plant a tree that fits the space.  That's mostly true, but you know we all prefer to pick a tree we like and live with the consequences.  This happens more with shrubs than trees, so we shear them or cut them back so they don't rub against she house, etc.  Trees will tolerate some of this, though shearing isn't usually practical or pretty.  So then what?  Well, you can control the size to a good degree, at least until it gets old.  Then it becomes a lot harder and you should give up.  If there's something that can be fixed, great.  If not, don't butcher it, cut it down if it's a problem.  But controlling the size has to start early in its life, or you'll end up with all sorts of proportionality and growth pattern problems.  You simply can't wait until a tree is 20 years old, that you want to hold it to that size forever.  There may be some exceptions to this, but it's not a good plan.

More to come............

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Domination, Tip Expansion and Hose Comparison: Apical Superiority

Apical Dominance.  That's a term you should become familiar with and understand somewhat if you're gonna be doing any pruning.  Unfortunately, when it's explained in most texts, it's not explained in easy-to-understand terms, and not even fully understood by science, just like they can't explain why some people intentionally walk around with their pants falling down.  This particular phenomenon doesn't blend especially well with pruning, even more especially if you're doing it in a ladder.

What the term "apical dominance" means, as well as I understand and can explain it, is that the terminal bud tip of a trunk or any given parent branch, at least a more vertical branch, tends to have much more vigor than any later/side branches or buds waiting to become branches closer to or further down the trunk.  The terminal bud is King.  At least until it sprouts and a new one takes over, or it gets knocked off.  With all this hereditary monarchy, No wonder the British like trees so much.

The apical bud, otherwise known as the terminal bud, or tip of the tree or tip of the branch, mysteriously maintains superiority over all other branches and buds lower down the line with a hormone called auxin.  This is the phenomenon that's not fully understood and it may work by means of several different mechanisms.  Terminal buds are like Mr. Potter or some Republicans, who want most of the power and go out of their way to take away the well-being of those below them.

Trees tend to grow tall and have long branches due to this mechanism.  They're more likely to reach the sunlight if they're they're tall while being in competition with other trees.  You might liken this to how humans became dominant primarily because they became taller and more manipulative of their surroundings.

If you cut the terminal bud or the last few inches off a branch, the remaining buds go nuts, trying to take over, much like when a dictatorship is overthrown.  The one closest to the new gmailend tends to take over, but other buds gain some vigor to a lesser degree, at least until the new tip gains momentum.

To maintain the approximate same natural shape as before pruning but in a more compact fashion and with more tapering branches, you want to cut just above a bud that's pointing in the preferred direction, and not at a sharp angle.  There is a tendency if you cut above a bud and not above an actual already-existing lateral/substitute branch, that the bud will generally grow fairly straight and follow the footsteps of the tip that was removed, within, say 10 degrees.  You usually want this new replacement branch to point outwards, maybe up just a bit, or down a bit in some cases.  Some expert may take me to task a bit on this point.

Severe pruning may ruin this natural structure, at least in the short term, and can create more of a bush, lollipop, mushroom, hedge, whatever you want to call it.  It's generally not what you want in a natural-looking tree.  You should strive for a stronger, but generally the same-shape tree as the Good Lord intended in the best specimens.  Of course we manipulate some species to look a certain way while still appearing to be natural.  Kinda how Bruce/Kaitlin Jenner does a pretty good job of approximating the look of a natural woman, with the goal that people couldn't tell what the real story is unless they read tabloids.

For a fun little analogy, let's think of it this way.  Suppose you have a garden hose hooked up to a spigot.  The terminal bud would be like the end of the hose, with a sprayer attached.  The rest of the hose would have pin holes every few inches, back to where it meets the spigot.  If you open up the sprayer fully, almost all the water would come out the end.  If you open up the sprayer about half way but maintain the same pressure from the spigot, most of the water would come out the end, but some would come out of the pin holes.  More water would come out of the holes near the end.  If you shut the sprayer off altogether, the holes would tend to more evenly distribute the water because the pressure isn't focused at the end.  Now, think of removal of the terminal bud as the sprayer you shut off, and poking an even bigger hole in the furthermost remaining pinhole is like the new replacement terminal bud.  Most of the pressure will come out of that new dominant hole, but some will be diverted to the remaining holes, though not a lot.  If you were to somehow be able to immediately put the sprayer over that new, bigger hole, and turn down the pressure of the sprayer very slightly, you can see where this is going.

The side branching tends to be longer further back coming out of a parent branch, because it's had more time to grow.  But as the parent branch lengthens, the vigor of these side branches lessens, and eventually will cease growing or even die, leaving the outermost side branches with the most vigor.  Cutting the patent branch back closer to the lateral branches increases their vigor.  Any side branching contributes to the bulk of the patent branch, increasing diameter and increasing tapering as long as there's some side branching nearest the base of the parent branch.  Concentrating all the growth near the very tip of a parent branch will create a weak branch with little tapering.  Most conifers don't ready tolerate pruning into a parent branch unless there's still fresh foliage behind it.  If all the energy is concentrated at the end and you cut it off, say bye bye to the whole branch.

When people do pollarding, liontailing, topping, etc., they tend to reduce or completely remove branches closer to the trunk and concentrate the energy into the very tips of the branches, and cut the end off too. This is not a good idea and it's just busy work that will lead to repetitive, unproductive annual pruning and in some species, a whole lot of mess coming out the end of a branch and an ugly knuckle.  In fact, people sometimes top their trees in an effort to make the tree more compact, but the effect may be exactly the opposite in time.  This is exactly what people compulsively do with Mulberry trees, which look absolutely terrible for half the year, especially winter, and Crape myrtles, hence the term "Crape Murder".

Pruning that's too severe will frequently cause vertical water spouts/sprouts to form, as the tree reacts to pruning, trying to replace what it lost, sometimes with more vigor than before.  In actuality, there's the same amount of roots as before pruning with energy that has to go somewhere.   During summer pruning, it's more of a two-wayvstreet as the leaves are providing the roots with energy, and removing some of the foliage slows down the tree's growth.  Water spouts/sprouts never look good, and my take on it is that you might leave them for a short time lower down the branch to increase tapering, remove the ones nearest the tip right away, but remove all or at least redirect into a pleasant direction before they become thicker than a pencil and would leave scarring that wouldn't seal (not heal, exactly) over relatively quickly.  Water spouts/sprouts tend to occur a lot more on certain trees than others.  If you look around, you're likely to see some vertical branches in a lot of trees that don't look right, especially if the tree has a more horizontal branching pattern.  Water spouts/sprouts are much more likely to exist with infrequent, severe pruning, than frequent, minor pruning.  It would be like eating well and taking care of your skin over a long period of time, where you can be healthy and look good, instead of going on a crash diet and getting botox, where things just aren't the same.  Interestingly, apical dominance is less pronounced on more horizontal branches than on more vertical branches since gravity helps the auxin move down and stores growth in lower lateral buds and branches  As a result, horizontal branches tend to have more sprouts along the length without pruning, and when pruning is carried out, especially excessively, more water spouts/sprouts.  It may also explain why more vertical branches tend to have less taper and grow faster in length, and aren't as strong for those reasons, along with the fact that the low angle of departure from the trunk makes for a better chance of splitting like firewood with an axe and ruining your day.

I hope this explains things a bit, and gives you a better understanding of why pruning should be done properly, and what the results will be.  Please try to understand the consequences of every cut you make.  And stay away from the botox.