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.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Questions 67 and 68: Pruning Stuff You Should Ask

No, there really aren't that many questions here.  But it's a good Chicago song.  Questions you should ask me, other pruners, or yourself:

1. Do my trees need pruning?
Absolutely.  Almost every tree in the world, including those out in the wild, can benefit from smart pruning.  First of all, every tree accumulates dead material, and there's no reason at all to leave it there.  Second, trees in the wild and in cultivation frequently suffer from wind damage, caused by inadequate tapering or crotch formation.  Third, your trees came from the nursery already with some pruning that wasn't in the best interest of the long-term structure or health of the tree.  Eventually, every tree needs some guidance or correction, and sooner and more frequently is better than when it's in trouble or sick or dangerous or just ugly.

2.  Why should you prune a tree?
First off, if you need to ask this, you're probably not the one that should be doing any of tree work.  A tree should be pruned to clear out dead, diseased and damaged branches; to eliminate crossing, rubbing, parallel, over-crowded branches; to promote balance, taper, strength and ramification; to control the rate of growth and shape in any given area; to decrease wind resistance that can cause damage; to reduce overly-straight or overly-vertical branches/water spouts; to remove suckers that suck the life out of the tree; to remove branches with narrow crotch unions; to remove co-dominant leaders in most cases; to optimize flowering or fruiting (or decrease in some cases); to increase or decrease the vertical height or promote a more horizontal branching pattern; to slow or increase the growth or size; to promote good structure and an attractive silhouette; to correct past pruning mistakes and prevent future butchering by others; to maintain or enhance vigor.  That's for starters.

3.  How often should a tree be pruned?
This depends on how good you want it to look.  Ideally, you prune/pinch several times per year, and each time it takes a lot less work than if you prune infrequently.  This keeps the tree stress-free, and you never have to play catch-up.  Some trees need much more frequent pruning than others for various reasons.  If you pay attention each year, you'll probably never have to remove it.  Pruning this often may not take up any more time than major pruning every few years.

4.  How long does it take to prune a tree?
A tree that's very young and less than about 8' tall might only need a few minutes pruning each time.  A tree from 8' to about 15' is completely dependent on what shape it's in from past pruning or lack thereof.  If I get ahold of a tree this size that hasn't been touched in years or was hacked up, it may take 3 to 6 hours the first time, and perhaps 2 hours the next year, decreasing each year after that.  Pinching at seasonal intervals may take a few minutes up to a couple hours 1 or 2 or even 3 times per year depending on variables, again decreasing over the years.  For trees over 15', it's really a case-by-case basis.  There may be tons of dead stuff that takes time to remove, for one thing.  It's also far more likely that the tree has suffered from poor pruning in the past, and corrections can take some time, over several years in some cases. I tend to be much, much more meticulous than most pruners, so I spend more time than others.  But my hourly rate is very good, so it's win win.  And once a thorough, proper pruning session is done, it's a lot less work each time thereafter

5. Should my gardener do my pruning?
Probably not.  Any gardener that primarily takes care of the lawns, blowing leaves, and shearing hedges is probably not trained or educated or thoughtful enough to do good pruning on trees and shrubs.  This would be like a housecleaner thinking they can install appliances or a hair stylist thinking they can do brain surgery.

6.  What is your rate?
If you have to ask, I'm not the guy for you.  Just kidding.  I don't like to give out my rate for various reasons until we have a discussion.  I will tell you that it's very good, just above what most run-of-the mill accidental tree trimmers or mow and blow guys charge, but much, much less than what tree service companies change with all the overhead and so forth.  But if your not looking for a fantastic job, and just want a quickie job, I'm not the guy for you.

7.  Can ANY tree be improved?
No.  Some trees are too far gone, and they're either gonna die or always be ugly or too big or too messy or the wrong shape or in the wrong place.  But most trees can be improved in every way, some vastly.

8.  Does experience make a difference?
Usually.  It's common sense that the more you do something, the note you learn and the better and faster you become.  However, I see people in the tree trade, construction trade, and every trade imaginable that have lots of experience.  Problem is, they didn't learn well in the first place and continue, stubbornly, with the same bad habits.  Consider that Burger King has made billions of hamburgers.  They still can't produce a burger even remotely as good as a terrific chef that probably never makes burgers.  I see pruning "experts" butcher trees all the time.  They're either just in it for the money, or just don't know any better.

9.  Is pruning messy?
Yep.  There's no way around that.  You can either have me clean up everything, work with me, do it yourself, or have your gardener clean it up.  Unfortunately, it's the last enjoyable part of the job.  You might have wood to burn or material for mulching/composting, if you want to go that route.

10.  Do you take care of diseases?
Some.  Removing disease may be as simple as cutting off branches that are infected.  For other diseases, you'll need to have someone who does infections, spraying, treatment, etc.  And those guys aren't usually the ones you want doing your aesthetic pruning.

11.  Do you do topiary or pom poms or lollipops or boxes?
I could, but I choose not to.  Natural-looking trees, ones that look like they were never altered, are my thing.  If you have a tree already in this kind of shape and it looks good but needs a little work, I'll probably help you.

12.  Can you keep a tree a certain size?
Pretty much, if you get a handle on it early enough and have a good strategy.  Others will disagree with me, but there are ways to do this, AND have it look perfectly natural.  I do this all the time with potted/bonsai trees.  In the ground, they grow much faster, and root pruning may be needed at some point.  A good example is a Giant Sequoia I planted in a friend's yard about 12 years ago.  It's still only about 2' tall and looks more like a small juniper.

13.  Do you plant trees?
Yes, but I'm not often asked.  I study trees a great deal, and can recommend or even plant trees that would work well for you.

14.  Do you follow the rules?
Yes and no.  I obviously try to follow the rules that are critical for the health and the best looks for the tree.  Other rules sometimes need to be fudged a bit if there's a more important rule or goal at hand.  This could be a lengthy discussion, so it's better to address any specifics directly as they pertain to a given tree.

15.  What are your limitations?
At this point, I'm pretty much limited to most trees under about 30' tall.  Yes above this may require equipment or courage I don't have right now.  But I can deal with the lower section of any tree and someone else can do the top stuff.  I'm likely to be prepared for trees up to about 45 feet tall in the near future.

16.  Do you specialize in any particular species?
It's funny that so many pruners"specialize" in Japanese maples, but nobody else seems to specialize in any other kind of tree.  I specialize in any kind of tree that simply needs to be its best.  How's that?  By the way, the last Japanese maple I saw that was pruned by an "expert" of at least 30 years, was messed up to the point where it will take years to look good, if ever.

17.  Can you teach or train me?
I love showing people how I do things and more importantly WHY I do them.  I would say if someone wants to come help me out on a job, I'll teach them in exchange for their help, including cleanup or going to get us sandwiches or something.  If it's your own tree, hiring me gets you my teaching as well as my work, if you want that.

18.  Will you give me a bad time about past pruning?
No.  I realize almost nobody knows how to prune trees exceptionally well.  Let's call it amnesty.  It's best to point out what#have been done in the past, how to correct things as much as possible, and how to proceed properly form this point.  I never tell at anyone or call them names unless they start it.

19.  Why do you do this for a living?
I don't.  At least not fully.  This is a minor part of what I do,
But it's increasingly becoming a bigger part.  I enjoy it so much as a hobby, that it's more fun than any of the other work I do.  It's never been about making a lot of money.  I could make more money doing other things.  I'm not motivated by the highest amount of money I can make.  Never have been.  I've always strived to do things as well as I can, and it's so satisfying for me and my clients.  I'm not the smartest man that way, financially.  But a large amount of money makes little difference in happiness than an adequate amount.  Job satisfaction, however, can make a huge difference.  I figure at some point if I want to make more, my clients will be happy to pay it when they see my quality and honesty.

20. Why would I NOT hire you?
Well, we may just have different goals.  You may want a quick, cheap chop, and that's not me.  You may find someone else who agrees exactly with you on any particular issue or style.  You may find someone that talks a good game or has nice cologne or looks like George Clooney.  You may want a company that comes in with a while bunch of guys and finished the job in a day or two.  I work alone, at least for now   I may only be able to do one or two trees in a day.  You may think your gardener or son's buddy is a better value at eighteen bucks an hour.

21.  Do you do shrubs too?
Yes.  Shrubs need love, too.  Shrubs are really just small trees.

22.  Do you do other stuff in the yard?
Anyone that knows me knows that I'm very versatile and tackle everything I do with attention to quality.  I'm a finish carpenter/cabinetmaker and home remodeler by trade, and have been known to enthusiastically get involved with various yard projects, like hardscaping, garden buildings, etc.  But mowing lawns and blowing leaves and the like isn't really my thing.  Once people hire me, they usually hire me for a lot of different projects, some related and others completely unrelated.

23.  What are your titles?
You could call me a fine ornamental tree pruner, or an aesthetic pruner, or a tree fixer or a tree beautifier, Arboman, or just TreeDawg.

You can be a TreeDawg Knight.

Cut It Out Vol. 1: Pruning Tools You Must Have

I'll go into more detail of the various tools in dedicated posts.  Here's an overview:

If you're only working on very small trees, shrubs, etc., it may be possible to get by with only hand pruners, provided you do have hands and the tree hasn't been growing long without needing pruning.

But you're probably gonna need more.  In order, these are the tools I use the most.

First, alcohol.  What fun is pruning, and where would the great stories come from without alcohol?  Actually, rubbing alcohol is what I use to disinfect my tools between trees and between cuts if necessary.  Mostly what you read about is a bleach solution, which is cumbersome and corrodes the blades.  I think alcohol is much more practical.  They have it in little spray bottles, which you can carry in a belt pouch, and it's faster than wiping.  I can only imagine that alcohol is a better disinfectant than bleach or Lysol.  It is, of course, what they use in hospitals, which have higher standards of sterility.

Then, you should really wear gloves.  I've done plenty of pruning without, but there's no good reason.

And shoes.  You want good, stiff-soled shoes for this work.  Sneakers don't really cut the tough stuff and don't grip ladders that well.  Steel toes are a good idea, too.

Wearing a helmet is a great idea.  A branch could fall on you or you can fall off a ladder or roof, or out of a tree.  I like using a bike helmet, which ventilated, fits snugly, and is comfy.

Safety glasses.  Ok, I'm guilty of not using these much of the time, but there's little excuse except for misplacing them.  You should have clear ones and sunglass ones.

On to the tools:

1.  Hand pruners.  There's are an absolute must.  Get a good pair, or at least a mid-range pair, to keep from damaging your trees.  Recommended brands include Bahco, ARS, Felco and Corona, but there are tons of brands that work well.  I also frequently use my Japanese bonsai concave pruners quite a bit.  Love those.

2.  Long-reach lopper/pole loppers.  I use pole pruners more often than short loppers.  I have several different styles depending on the need.  I have a Corona 6' model with an articulating head that lasts me cut up to 1-1/2".  It's great, but the head sticks shut all the time, making it a bit frustrating.  I can't figure out how to keep it from sticking.  Oiling doesn't do the trick.  I have a Fiskars ropeless pole pruners that goes to about 12', with an articulating/tilting head.  It works great and is very user-friendly, but they become troublesome in a very short time, just a couple hours of use.  I've returned two of them for a refund and then bought new ones.  They're not terribly expensive, but work very well up until the time they don't.  I have longer, standard pole pruners, but don't like using them as much.

3.  Reciprocating saw.  I stray from the crowd here.  People tend to use either hand pruning saws (a bit slow) or a chain saw (cumbersome and rough), or a pole saw (too long for close work).  I have a couple I use.  One is two-handed, and cuts fast, and the other is single-handed, which works great if you need a free hand to stabilize yourself or a branch you're cutting.  A reciprocating saw can also do the work of loppers, in about the same amount of time, and especially useful if you need to cut anything over about 1-1/4" thick, and they're much better with dead wood.  I use corded models, but cordless ones are great to, as long as you don't run out of juice in the middle of something.

4.  Extended pruners.  I have a Stihl model that's about 7' long, which is like a hand pruner on a lightweight pole.  This works much better on anything under 3/4" thick than a pole pruner/lopper.  I actually use this tool almost as much as my handpruners.  Love it.

5.  Loppers.  Short loppers are good at pruning branches up to 1-1/2" thick. And then it becomes a struggle for most people.  There are some that go up to 2-1/2", but at that size you're probably better off with a reciprocating saw.  I have various types and sizes depending on the application.  Avoid buying discount brands.  They'll be a hassle and fall apart almost right away.

6.  Ladders.  I have a 10' orchard ladder that's a dream to use, much better and safer to use than a stepladder.  If I smarten up, I'll get a standing platform to save my feet.  It's not tall enough for a lot of things, so extension ladders are needed sometimes.  With those, however, you should have some rope to tie them off if at all precarious.  Standing on a 10' orchard ladder, up to the 7' rung, I can reach up to about 21' easily with my extended pruners.  If you're cutting a tree about 24' high, this is perfect.  Orchard ladders come taller, which is a good idea much of the time.  I have carried my orchard ladder on top of my car, with padding underneath and ratcheting straps to hold it to the roof.  This worked surprisingly well.  But I really should have a truck.

7. Pole saw.  I don't like using a pole saw very much for various reasons, unless there's no other way.  You usually get a saw that comes with pole loppers, but the blade are really too short.  The really good ones are very expensive, and I haven't gone that way yet.  These can lead to disastrous consequences if you don't think through what you're doing.

8.  Binoculars.  What?!  These are very useful for evaluating what to cut.  Dead wood can be spotted from a distance, and if you need to use a pole saw, you might need someone looking at your positioning from a distance as you start cutting.

Other things you might want:

Took bag/holster.  Once in a while I keep hand pruners in my back pocket, but regret not having my bag or holster.  You might want a bag large enough to hold alcohol, protein bar, or good luck charm.

Buddy.  It's gross to have someone close for various reasons.  But try to train them not to say what most people say, "there's not gonna be anything left of that tree when you're done, yuk yuk".

Hot tea.  Winter pruning can get cold, and hot tea is really comforting.

This list could go on and on, but I'll stop there.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cut it Out Vol. 2: Pruning Tools: Hand Pruners

I've always been a tool nut.  Some people would say I'm just a tool, others would say I'm just a nut.  Whatever.

Anyway, quality is important to me, but I'm sensible enough to know when a certain budget tool will do just fine, and can even do a better job sometimes.

When it comes to pruning tools, there's a lot of stuff out there.  What works on one job or for one person may not be best for another.  If you read reviews, opinions are all over the place.

I recently decided that I may be in for some trouble if I'm doing a lot of repetitive cuts.  It may take a full day or more, but my hands or forearm may regret using pruners that are less than ideal.  I've been using 1" capacity Corona hand pruners, and can't complain about them really, except they're not terribly ergonomic.    They're fine, but not the best for great cuts or comfort.

I've checked out some other brands in person and read a lot of reviews.  It seems that having more precise, ergonomic, extra sharp cutters can make a big difference over time.

It sure looks like the industry standard has been Felco for some time.  And most people love them.  But now there are at least two other contenders worth considering.  I must admit I had a hard time figuring out which brand to get.

ARS is a Japanese brand, known for having the sharpest blades and for staying sharp the longest.  I haven't seen them in any stores, so it looks like online is the way to go.

Bahco is the third one to mention. Instead of $50-something for Felco or ARS, these cost about $34.  They're probably the most ergonomic pruners of all, and very high quality.

I was ordering some Bahco pruners last night, but wasn't able to get them delivered to my area from Amazon.  I figure there's some lead in the metal or suffering, so that was that.  So instead I ordered the ARS instead.  We'll see what they're like in a few days.  I'll report back after I spend some time with them.

Meanwhile, I have a pair of Barnell pruners that I bought for lighter jobs.  They have a nice feel, but I haven't spent enough time with them to give my best two cents.  And I still have my Coronas for the heavy hand work.

Most of these brands have at least a model or two with rotating lower handles.  This is great for people with issues or if you hold the pruners in your hand for long periods of time.  I don't find it ideal because I put my pruners in my pouch frequently, while using other tools at the same time,  and each time you pick them up, you have to regain your grip so it feels right.  I'll stick with the fixed-handle models for now bb

One thing that's never mentioned in these articles is BONSAI PRUNERS.  Well, I have two pairs of these, and for certain kinds of work, like Japanese Maples, they can't be beat.  They cut better than "normal" hand pruners, but you have to hold them differently and they would probably tire you out faster.  I love them, and feel sorry for those who never have tried them.  They have the added advantage of making a concave cut, which is great for certain situations.  Cutting close  in a very precise way is something standard hand pruners can't do as easily, like if you're trying to surgically remove a third twig from a whorl, for instance, these things are the way to go.  They're also great for nipping away at a cut if your first cut wasn't exactly as close as  you wanted. I have an 8" and a 10" pair.  Since both edges are very sharp blades, they have the ability to cut more cleanly and seem to be even better at cutting thick, hard branches, though I wouldn't sensibly go larger than 1" with either type.  Gosh darn, I try often enough.  I should know better.  But I never break tools trying, just get a bit frustrated momentarily.

Now, if you have a fat wallet or some real grip or arthritis problems, there are cordless pruners.  You pull a little trigger and it does all the work.  Problem is, they start at around $800 or $900 and can go up to $2000 or more.  Come on!  These are made in China!  Well, I'm gonna do a little research and see if there's another tool that can be modified or something.  I did glance at some similar but lighter-weight models from Craftsnan or Ryobi or one of those.  As I remember, the maximum cut was only 1/2", which doesn't excite me that much.  Maybe these could be modified. I also like the idea of the organic nature of a fully manual hand pruner.  We'll see what happens when I get older and lose strength and flexibility.

I received my ARS pruners today.  They look very similar to most other pruners of the same style, which I dose are made to mimic Delco.  You can tell the quality is great.  And they're super sharp.  They weren't kidding.  I pruned a peach and an oak tree.  I don't think I cut anything bigger than about 3/4", maybe a couple that were an inch.  You still have to use pretty good hand strength, so it's not like cutting butter.  But pretty darn good.  The action of the pruners is smooth and sexy and it was a pleasure.

I'very been using my ARS pruners for about 2 weeks now.  Unlike a lot of other people,  I use a variety of hand pruners for didn't tasks.  But my ARS's are the main machine.  They do cut really well,  but I wouldn't go so far as to say it's night and day between those,  my slightly smaller Barnels, or equally-sized Coronas.  I fix come across a couple occasions where I cut about a 5/8" branch, and they acted up.   Lo and behold,  the blade had a nick or dent or starve you want to call it,  and they wouldn't close.  So I immediately had to go sharpen it.   It seems the tolerance is much closer than other pruners,  so a small flaw in the blade can really make a difference between working great and not at all.  I still can't figure out how cutting wood ended up like cutting into a metal cable.  Head-scratcher on that one.  Are these pruners worth 2 or 3 times what others cost?   Hard to say,  but if you use them for years,  the daily cost is so minor that it makes sense to get the best.  And these probably are the best,  or at least tied.

Now, cut loose.

Tiny DawgTrees and My Own Take on Bonsai

Everyone understands what bonsai is, right?  At least to a degree?

In the simplest terms, it would mean keeping a tree or shrub in a pot.  It also usually means keeping it miniaturized by pruning, pinching, and root pruning.  It also usually means making the tree or shrub look more like a mature tree than a shrub or a seedling/sapling/juvenile tree, with proportions, taper, ramification (fine branching), and other attention to detail.

Bonsai is an extremely rewarding, engrossing, soothing, sometimes frustrating form of art like ntoo other.  No other form of art is continually evolving to the same degree.  I suppose some art installations left to degrade in the rain would be evolving, but that's not the same.  General gardening comes close, but generally you're not manipulating the plants at hand to become exactly what you envision, not to the same degree.

The world of bonsai is full of experts who know much more than I do about some very technical and specific tasks that all come together in the finished product.  As wonderfully experienced and knowledgeable as these aficionados are, they have a different perspective than I do.  But they're close.

I figure what I disagree or stray from the most is some of the traditionalism.  I tend to want to experiment in some ways that might irritate some purists.  As a tree collector, I really enjoy working with species rarely or never seen in bonsai shows.  I know there are others who do this, but they're on the fringes and probably not easily welcomed by the usual bonsai culture until something catches on.

Now, I totally respect what they're doing, and when I see what they do, I become jealous, and realize I probably can't become as good as them at specific things.  Maybe I'm a bit reckless.  I just normally have an urge to experiment, see how things go without the confines of all the rules.  I know certain rules must be followed, but I realize the people that really make a big difference in the world are the ones that followed the ABSOLUTE rules, and drifted away from the rules that weren't set in stone.

A lot of bonsai people would tell you just to keep a few trees and treat them as well as you can.  I probably should do this and wholeheartedly agree,but every time I discover a new tree specie or see one in a way others don't, I can't help but think that I'm gonna have something very unusual.  I'm working on some trees that are perhaps completely unique, or trying to become that way.  Of course, having so many tiny trees means I can't devote as much aggregation to any of them to make them as great as possible.  It's a trade-off.

My ultimate goal is to have a plethora of trees that conjure up the image of a mature tree with great proportions, etc., but without the confines of a particular pot.  Most of my creations may end up in the ground, in more of an arboretum setting, but we'll see.  I expect it will be something between true bonsai and a normal arboretum, where the goal is usually to plant a tree and let it be its natural self with as little human manipulation as possible.  I expect my trees will be kept much smaller than naturally-growing trees, but larger than bonsai, which rarely exceed 3 or 4 feet tall.  I also want to give the impression that the trees GREW naturally, so any pruning, wiring, etc. needs to remain very discreet.

One benefit to true bonsai is that they're completely portable.  I have a dilemma in that I wouldn't be able to easily transport trees that are let's say over 6' tall.

I can't say I have a big emphasis on the pots at this time.  Most likely, this hasn't become a focus yet because most of what I have is still in training, and it'll be years before they're ready to unveil.  Small pots are not really conducive to my ultimate goal, at least not until they get to the point where they seem ready to put on a show.  Trees will grow faster and in some cases more healthfully in larger pots, especially breathable pots, or in the ground.  But you can't show them off as well.

I have a number of true bonsai now.  They may remain that way, or I may go ahead and let them loose to become bigger than originally intended in the scope of bonsai.  We'll see.

Either way you decide to go, it's a heck of a lot of fun.  It's also a hobby that allows you to become so focused that you don't think much at all about everyday stresses.  You can be outside more often, and will tend to do that even when the weather normally rejects you.  You can also bring trees indoors to work on them while sitting at the dinner table, though the clippings and soil will probably irritate someone you live with.

I urge you to learn more about bonsai and even more about trees in general.  If you care to have a discussion, I'm always open to that.  Attend at least one bonsai show in person.  You'll really be amazed.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Ye Olde Tree and Me Historee

So, here's my story.

I became very interested with plants and trees while I was a wee lad.  I used to have my mom take me to the plant nursery and look at all the immense variety.  Sometimes we would buy a plant to put in the front yard.  I knew nothing about them except what I thought looked neat.  If the sign mentioned that a tree grew to be 100 feet tall, this was incredible to me since I was only about 4 feet tall, and since we didn't go to the forest, there were no trees that size around me and it was a rather alien concept.  We didn't have the internet, so looking this stuff up was almost impossible.

I used to make rock gardens and terrariums, but like any kid that age, interest would wane after a short time.  True love would have to wait.  House plants were still pretty uncommon, mostly reserved for hippies and girls that wore ponchos and burned incense.

When I started driving, the first job I took on was pruning.  Not really good pruning, but I was an ace at trimming hedges to razor precision.  I started learning about real pruning over the years.

Jump ahead a number of years.  I think I was in a restaurant that had some potted Japanese Maples, and it fulfilled my design and nature sensibilities simultaneously.  I just had to go out and buy one right away.  Well, within just a few days of that revelation, I happened upon a bonsai show.  Before that, I'd seen bonsai and was fascinated, but had no real way to become more educated or exposed.  So that was the biggie.  At that point my interest really took off, and I absorbed everything I could about trees in a very short time.  I learned to prune the right way and could identify most trees among with their botanical names.  I collected a bunch.

I remained a cabinetmaker and remodeling contractor during this time.  But as years went by, I had the urge to make pruning part of my business.  I would prune trees for friends and clients, but never actively sought work.  Remaining a hobby wasn't enough.

Over the past few years, I've studied trees and pruning extensively, and fine-tuned the craft.  The thing I realize the most is how badly managed almost all trees are, including by so-called experts.  I have an obsession now with making trees absolutely as good as they can be.

Finally, in the last couple years, I decided to make a go of it, and tree management is now a fair chunk of the work I do.  It's the most fun I have at work, and I'm every bit as good at it as any of the trades I practiced for many years.  Being a perfectionist leads one to strive to be great at multiple things.  If I don't get really good at something, I just give up. I suppose as I get older that I won't be able to do hard remodeling labor, but can prune trees well into my 80's or 90's, though I probably won't be climbing tall trees at that point.

The end.

Splitsville: Tree Bark Opens Up Like Dr. Phil's Guests

Most people never see bark splitting open on a tree branch.   It's usually on top, hidden like the dark side of the moon. It may or may not be a big problem. It's possible it could kill a branch, and even the whole tree in severe cases.  Splitting occurs mostly on thin-barked trees, and younger ones at that.

It appears that there are a number of causes.  Some we can control, others we can't.  The actual cause on your tree may remain a mystery.  Best thing to do is manage the tree properly.

Cracked bark generally appears lengthwise, facing the southwest.  Since it's usually on top, it's open to more rot since water can soak right in, along with dust, bugs, fungus,  etc.  This problem can be minimized after the fact in some cases.  Keeping your crack clean is probably quite helpful so that rot doesn't have much to grab onto.

The cause may be excessive vigorous growth.  That's good, right?  Well, it can be, but it's complicated.  Like in most of life, excessive isn't so great.  Growth at the wrong time of year can leave it vulnerable.  So according to experts, pruning or fertilizing too late in the summer or in the fall can encourage growth that doesn't tolerate winter very well and sets up a bad crack situation..

A combination of frost and hot sun in the right combination can cause expansion of the wood, which leads to cracks.  Incorrectly pruning can exacerbate this problem.  It can open up too much of the canopy to sunlight, and an incorrect cut can cause a wound that opens the rest of the branch to stress.  It seems best, therefore, to prune frequently and diligently rather than infrequently and heavily.  That's been my motto anyway.  Removing vertical water spouts/sprouts as soon as possible, at least when they're smaller than about 1/2", is a good idea.  They grow faster than other branches, but weakly, and they only like it on top, so this is a bad combination.  They look terrible, anyway.  Most things don't look right sticking straight up.

Drought can apparently make things worse, especially if there's a sudden increase in rain.  It's probably best to give your trees a drink now and then during hot summers, just to the point that it's sensible without being wasteful.  You'd probably split if you didn't get a drink when you were thirsty.

You can usually tell if the branch will recover well if the bark is cleanly separated and the wood beneath looks healthy.  Cutting cleanly any separated bark that allows intrusion and retention of water and yucky pests is a good idea.  You'll need to read up on how to do this.  If it just looks awful, it's probably gonna die sooner or later.  But if there's no replacement branch in the wings, you probably should leave it for now if it's not an imminent hazard.

Check out your trees, and if they're split more often than a country music couple, read more about the subject and try to figure out what led to the problem.  Fix it if you can.

You can be a TreeDawg Knight!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Wonderful Tree #2: Jacaranda Mimosifolia

Jacaranda mimosifolia.

This is a tree native to Central and South America, and the South Atlantic.  There are 49 species of Jacaranda, but this one is by far the most popular in cultivation and the only one you're likely to find for sale.  It's probably one of my 10 or 15 favorite trees.

Leaves are fern-like, similar to the popular Silk tree, Albizia julibrissin.  The Jacaranda has more to offer.  The tree is longer lived, stays green longer into the season, has an interesting branching pattern, and its biggest claim to fame is the purple flowers usually in May or June.  Flowers of this color are highly unusual in trees.  There are cultivars of this with white flowers, which aren't nearly as appealing.  I've heard of some with red or other colors, but need to research that more.  Luckily, mostly you'll see the purple-flowering versions in nurseries.  Some flowers tend to be more blue than others.

These trees are deciduous, at least in our climate.  But the dormant season is shorter.  I have one that I'm bonsaifying, and here it is Christmas Eve and it still looks lush, almost like it's in Spring growth mode.  I bring it indoors when the temp drops below about 40 F.  they supposedly can tolerate temps as low as 20 F.  I think I've had this from a seedling for about 9 or 10 years, and it's now about 20" tall.  I'm torn between cutting it back a bit because it looks great now, though I would like to fatten up the trunk a bit.  Easy to care for.   I've read you can actually grow them indoors, but I don't really have the right light conditions at my place.  So out it goes.  The one below is not mine.  Mine doesn't look this good yet.  Doubt it ever will.  Apparently, flowering is difficult with bonsai or potted or indoor Jacarandas.  Mine never has shown its colors.  But it's a great looking tree even without flowers.

There aren't that many of these in the East Bay.  I've seen more in San Jose, and bunch down in L.A.  They should be more popular around here.  Some people may consider them a bit messy, but then all flowering trees are.

Most of these I've seen have a height of 20 to 35 feet, and a trunk diameter of between one and two feet, but there are some specimens that are over 100' tall and have a trunk diameter of about 6'.  They're suspected to live up to 200 years.

Apparently, the flowers are known for various healing properties, and smell great, too.  I guess this tree has it all!

"Jacaranda" is Portuguese, meaning "having a hard branch or core".  No idea why they called it that.  The term "Mimosifolia" seems more complex, something to do with the flowers and delicate leaves that are sensitive to touch, but I can't figure it all out.

Apparently, Jacaranda and related species introduce nitrogen into the soil, making it good for other plants.  Maybe I should introduce nitogen to people, and I would have more friends.

Get one.  A Jacaranda, that is.

Under Mistletoe, but Alone Again, Naturally

Yesterday, I was pruning an old black walnut tree that needs a revitalization.  Well, after a while, I thought I discovered that it wasn't a walnut after all.  I came across a mass of leaves and green branches, and there were several of these bunches throughout the tree.  The leaves looked sorta like Guava or some type of Ficus leaves I'd seen.  And there were little white berries.  But the bark and structure sure looked like a black walnut, nothing like a tropical evergreen.  And they planted tons of walnut trees in the area.

So it occurred to me that these masses grew like mistletoe.  I showed it to my client, and she agreed with me, or maybe it was her suggestion in the first place.  I then went back to the tree, smelled the sawdust, and it certainly was a black walnut.  And it certainly is mistletoe.

So then on to my research.  My scarce experience with mistletoe was disappointing to say the least.  Thank the always reliable Wikipedia for coming through.  As it so happens, mistletoe is quite fascinating.  It's both good and bad depending on the situation and point of view.  If you're a bird, it's like a candy store, apparently.  It's a parasite, growing right out of the host tree, and eventually it can kill parts or the whole of the host.  Sounds like a lot of people I know or thankfully USED to know.

I'll let you go poking around for info on your own.  It really is an interesting organism and mechanism for the continuation of life.  Fun to read about.

If you're a foxy lady and enjoy pruning, you could help me and we could have a lot of Christmas-y fun and a very close temporary friendship.  Let me know.

Light Penetration and Happy Endings

Light penetration and happy endings.  No, this is not the latest trend with casual relationships on Showtime or HBO.  This is about seeing through your trees.  No, that's not about a peeping Tom or Big Brother or for Trump keeping tabs on immigrants.

So you want light penetration with most trees for a few reasons:

1.  Light that filters through a tree, along with increased oxygen flow, helps keep lower/inner foliage growing so that all the living mass is not only at the top or the outside (liontailing).  This is important for balance, strength, taper, and rejuvenation abilities.

2.  If light filters through, it means air does too.  This decreases wind resistance, so parts of the tree are less likely to break in high winds.  Just about any time a tree comes down or loses a member in a high winds or stiff breeze, it could have been easily avoided.  More on this in another post.

3. Fewer crossing branches exist if the interior of the tree isn't chock full of dense branches.  This is a good thing.

4.  You can see the interesting silhouette of the tree if there's light coming though it, especially during sunset or sunrise, and during dormant periods it will look a lot better and cleaner.

5.  Trees just look better.  I know, some people want lollipops and mushroom trees, but the best trees by most standards have distinguishable branch patterns.  This seems to be most evident with upright Japanese Maples, Monterey cypresses, spruces, cedars, Auracarias, and some others that don't come to mind at the moment.  This is something that can apply to most other trees with proper maintenance, and all will be well.  If you just like the look of a jumbled mess, then I suppose my guidance is just as unlikely to get through to you as the sunshine through your trees.

Trees can live a longer life and everyone can have a happy ending when light penetration is an ultimate goal.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pruning: Goldilocks Style and Father Time

The best pruning takes place when you prune JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT.  Not too much or too little.

I've had awkward situations with customers and also with friends while helping them prune their trees.  They say either "better stop there", thinking that proper, meticulous, methodical winter pruning is wreaking havoc,  or "take more off" so that it's immediately smaller or thinner, or assumed that taking more off now saves effort in future seasons.

The fact is, almost nobody has managed their trees properly, regardless of how much they've learned or how many trees they look at or who they hired to do the work.  I would estimate that well over 95% of people doing tree trimming, either as a job, a career, or as a DIY or hobby project, are doing it completely wrong.  And once a tree is mismanaged, it only tends to get worse every season.  It's heartbreaking if you really love trees.  And I hate to say it, but the vast majority of people are clueless about what constitutes great pruning other than the most basic rules that don't include the finer points .  Don't look to arborists or tree surgeons or guys that just drive around with a truck, a chain saw and a ladder.  These guys hardly ever get it right.

Think of it this way.  If you get a bad cut on your finger, likely to get infected, leaving it alone would be like not pruning a tree at all.  Cleaning it or putting a Band-Aid on it would be like pruning just a little bit, but not enough.  It needs more.  Cutting off your hand would be like over-pruning.  A bit drastic.  Well, your hand isn't gonna grow back.  A tree, on the other hand, has the potential to grow back to what it should be provided there's proper management forever after, and if you let Father Time do his thing.  However, in many cases, things will never be right, so you either compromise or cut the tree down.

There are certainly cases where taking more off than you might like is needed..  I'll have a posting about Crape Murder and how to solve it, but to make a point here, if your trees have ugly knobs, knuckles, knots, whatever you want to call them, the solution is to remove them and get them started in the right direction, and provided the branches are less than about 2" in diameter, in a few years the tree may actually look normal.  BUT ONLY IF NEARLY PERFECT MANAGEMENT TAKES PLACE.  The actual process may appear drastic, but it's the only way, just like surgery is drastic but can save your life.

If you really want to do it right, have a meeting with the tree trimmer and ask what they're gonna do, exactly why they're gonna do it, and what the results will be now and in future seasons.  Ask them what's the problem to begin with that needs correcting.  They should be able to justify EVERY SINGLE CUT.  Don't let them fool you with keywords and jargon you don't understand.  You should be clear on what's happening.  If they don't make sense, don't hire them.

One really hard thing to understand is that pruning properly one year will mean less pruning in future seasons.  If you spend 3 hours on a tree in a critical year, you only have to spend a fraction of that in each future year.  Once again with Crape Myrtles, you could spend 2 or 3 hours cutting off all the little branches every year and have a really ugly tree for most of the year, or spend about 3 hours in a critical season, maybe another hour or two in the subsequent months, and then each year after that should be much less work, and the tree will look good even during the winter .  Especially if you let the tree grow to its natural height.  If you want to keep it down just a bit, that's gonna take some extra time each year, and not really possible forever unless you want it to be a lollipop.  Of course, if the tree needs a lot of work, the major repairs will need to be done incrementally over a few years   Making an abused or neglected tree look great may take up to 10 years or more, and you may have to live with a "pretty good" tree, not a great one.  But at least not a terrible one. 

Once someone who really knows their stuff gives you an education, you'll never see trees the same way again, and you'll start noticing how badly managed most are.  Have them point out in any given tree how it could be better.

Opinions, however, can be bizarre.  Some people think that clunky, choppy trees with big, swollen, disproportionate sections, vertical shoots and floppy flowers look good.  But then some people thought striped polyester disco jump suits, avocado green refrigerators and first-generation microwave cardboard pizzas were just terrific.

So, Goldilocks, though she was transient and breaking into homes, had it right with the goal of balance.

You too can be a TreeDawg Knight.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Golden Keys to Great Trees in Your Yard

These are my top attributes for tree superstardom:

1.  The right tree in the right place.
It's ultra-important to get the right tree for the location and conditions.  The exception to this is to put a spectacular tree where it shouldn't be, as long as you're willing to give it a lot of attention, and top-notch attention at that.

2.  Take care of it from day one.
The moment you plant the tree, you should be doing some pruning and planning.  But don't do anything unless you know exactly why to do it.

3.  The tree should look good in all seasons.
Not all trees do, but most will look pretty good in winter if they're pruned correctly.  Any tree that looks terrible in winter has been abused.  Abuse can also include neglect, which is probably better than active abuse.

4.  Girth, taper, proportion.
Except for some very tall forest trees that grow very straight, the trunk should have a noticeable taper, as should most of the branches.  This not only looks a lot better, but provides strength and wind resistance where needed.  A thick trunk makes for a sturdy tree and almost always makes a tree look better.  A taper within all components takes skill to achieve.

5.  Avoid whorls.
Whorls are the condition in which the tree splits from one trunk or branch into more than two branches at one point.  Except for a few species that stubbornly grow this way, this is a big no-no, but almost everyone is clueless about this except for bonsai people.  You'll see on almost every tree that at about 6' off the ground, someone decided to prune it in such a way that a bunch of branches come out of the trunk in one spot.  Not good, but once the tree matures a bit, you're stuck with it and have to make the best of it.  Doing it right from the very beginning is a lot better, and no, trees don't usually do this on their own.  They would generally have staggered branches, which makes the tree better in every way in most cases.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Trees Have Cycles Just Like People: Pruning Time?

There's so much confusion about when to prune.  All the experts and extensions have different opinions, like just about any subject on the internet.  The way around this is lots of research and serious deduction.  I've spent a lot of time going over this and I think I can make sense most of the time, though others may happily disagree with me about done of this..  I'll try to point out the reason for specific trees when needed, or at least TYPES of trees.  You can use the same reasoning for pruning shrubs, since I don't address a lot of those.

I don't address trees grown for fruit or nuts here.  I'll deal with that in another post.

In general:


Winter pruning will generally produce less stress and encourage vigorous spring growth.  Easier to see most branching during winter.  Harder to see dead wood.  Less chance of bleeding, which may attract pests or be unsightly.

Spring pruning is ok in limited amounts, but not major pruning. Pruning will encourage bleeding in some trees, and should be avoided in oaks, elms, and birches, along with some others.  The trees just want to grow during this season, and too much pruning will stress them out.  It's the ideal time to do pinching and encourage proper direction, if you have the time.  Some vigorous growers will greatly benefit from pinching, thus saving time pruning in other seasons.  Planting is also good during early spring, and the best time for root pruning during planting.

Summer pruning will slow down growth, if you want to keep your trees from growing bigger.  Easier to adjust branch leafing and balance in some cases, especially with Japanese Maples.  Also easier to spot dead branches. Summer pruning is more likely to attract pests in certain species, namely oaks, elms, and birches.

Fall pruning is best avoided.  Starting in about Sept/Oct., anything other than very light pruning may encourage new growth that can be harmed by the coming cold.  It is, however, a good time to remove spent flowers or seeds on certain trees, especially where they make a mess, like on Crape myrtles or Chinese Pistaches.  It's also a good time to plant trees, just before the rains.

Any time you see and can get to them.  The sooner, the better.

These are vertical shoots that some trees put out in response to pruning, and the more severe the pruning, the more shoots.  They look silly.  It's best to nix these early on.  In some cases I'll leave them toward the lower end of a branch to increase girth at that location for proper tapering, but remove them before they're big enough to leave a scar.  I notice these especially in plums and Chinese pistaches.

Prune deciduous trees that are not focused on flowering in January or February, or for some species into March, or just before spring bud swelling or leafing out.  You can probably include late December, if all the leaves have dropped.  Trees that bleed a lot, like maples, birches and elms will bleed less or not at all in early winter.  You shouldn't have to worry about the cold affecting them.

Deciduous trees that flower can also be pruned in winter as long as you realize that pruning BEFORE flowering will reduce the amount of flowers.  However, this isn't always a bad thing.  If you're doing very minor pruning, especially in the interior or at the top, you likely won't remove enough flowers to make a difference.  It's also probably better for the health of the tree to make specific major cuts in winter for better recovery.  The plan I suggest is to remove any larger branches or ones that don't really show from the outside in winter, and do the rest after flowering.  Another important point is that much of the branching, but not all, is easier to determine without leaves or flowers on the tree.  It can be a bit harder to determine what branches are dead, so it's best to prune dead wood throughout the year as you see it.  With trees that flower on new wood, like Crape Myrtles, it's best to prune during the winter, with minor touchup/pinching if needed throughout the year into late summer.

It's best to prune conifers during dormancy, either winter or summer, more specificall December to February, June, or July.  They'll handle the stress best during those months.  Touchup can be done as needed throughout spring and summer.  Pines have a specific need that's usually in May or June, where you cut or pinch the current candles back about 1/2 during the growth period to keep growth more dense and compact.

These are best pruned during winter or summer dormancy, so as to reduce stress.  By dormancy, I mean that it's growing very little or not at all during this time.  Growth is primarily in spring, with a bit in the fall.  But some species or even specific members of a specie will have an odd growth spurt, and it's probably not the best time to do major pruning during that spurt.


I'll keep adding to this list over time, so check back if you don't see what you want, or ask a question in the comments section, or e-mail me.

Arbutus/strawberry tree:  Jan-Mar, June-Aug., minor pinching Jan-Oct. If needed.

Birch:  Late Dec.-early Feb., to avoid bleeding.  Spring & summer pruning can attract harmful pests.  DEAD wood anytime.  Very minor pruning or in summer only if necessary.  Some branches may grow too quickly proportionally or in the wrong direction, so you can keep those in check as long as you make smaller cuts.

Conifers:  Late Dec.-Feb., June-July.  See "Pine" for specifics about those.

Crape Myrtle:  Very vigorous.  Prune Jan-March, then minor pruning & pinching through Aug or Sept.  to encourage multiple branching and avoid overly-long shoots.  You may lose a few pending flowers in the process, but there are usually so many that it's better to sacrifice a few for one or several years to develop good long-term form .  DO NOT TOP, POLLARD, LIONTAIL OR REMOVE ALL LOWER SECONDARY BRANCHES.  If this has already been done, there are specific remedies that will be addressed in another post.  You may also prefer to remove the spent flowers as they dwindle.  This may or may not encourage a second round of flowers.

Elm:  Late Dec.-early Feb. to avoid Dutch Elm or other disease from bleeding.  Dead wood anytime.

Flowering cherry, plum, apricot, almond, etc.:  Usually May-July, to keep flowers, but I think major pruning that won't undermine flowering is best in Jan.-Feb.  Keep in mind that plums get substantial vertical water sprouting after major pruning and to a degree after minor pruning, and it's usually best to remove these as early as you can by rubbing off, pinching, etc.

Maple:  Late Dec.-early Feb., May-early Aug .  Very vigorous growth in Spring.  Minor pruning/pinching Jan.-Sept.

Oak:  Late Dec.-Feb.  Pruning other than dead wood during the rest of the year attracts pests.

Pine:  Dec.-Feb, June-Aug. major pruning, trimming candles in May/June at their peak.

Sycamore: Late Dec.-early Mar., June-Aug.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Keep Your Hands Off: What NOT to do When Pruning Trees

Every article you read about pruning tells you the same things, like 3-step cuts, leaving branch collars, cutting out crossing branches, removing co-dominant leaders, don't cut more than 1/4 or 1/3, don't cut power lines, your finger or your little brother's finger, don't poke your eye out, etc.  I aim to tell you about things they DON'T tell you.

The ultimate goal with pruning just about any tree is to make it look like it was NEVER pruned, but rather magically grew with proper balance, branching, shape and taper, all without human intervention, all the while looking informal and not like a lollipop or a mushroom.  This achievement of a tree following the rules actually is quite rare in nature, and very, very few people have the skills to make this happen.  Almost every tree you'll ever see has issues, no matter who pruned it or how frequently or infrequently.  Bonsai experts are great at getting this look, ironically with the challenges of keeping the tree less than two feet tall.  Very few tree surgeons, arborists, "expert" pruners or guys that advertise on Craigslist get it just right, usually not even remotely right.  The best situation I come across is when I get a tree that's only a few years old that's been almost untouched, granted the growers usually already start it off on the wrong foot.  They earlier I get my hands on it, the easier I can train it to look great and stay healthy.  Any other condition usually means repairing botched earlier jobs, and a great-looking tree may take years of diligent pruning, but likely will never be close to perfect.

So here are the things almost nobody tells you about good pruning.  You should NOT do these:

1.  ATTAIN WHORLS & KNOBS.  A whorl is a situation when there are more than two branches in one union, or more than one branch coming directly out of the trunk at one point.  With a few exceptions where trees have a natural branching pattern of 3 branches that's hard to overcome, like some conifers, Chinese Pistache, Japanese Maples to a degree, etc., you should strive to have no more than 2 tree members in one spot.  Each joint should look like a peace sign you make with your fingers, more or less.  Plus you look really groovy.  A far worse scenario involves leaving knobs or knuckles at the end of a branch.  This is the result of repeatedly pruning the tip in the same spot, which led to these ugly monstrosities.  They always look terrible and can only be corrected by cutting lower down the branch, which is problematic except in the most vigorous trees.  People have commonly, peculiarly, and horribly mistakenly, decided to do this most frequently with Mulberry trees and Crape Myrtles, and it's a real crime.  Unfortunately, once a whorl is mature, it's usually better to leave it than remove it, since removal will probably be a permanent, obvious blemish, especially if over 2" in diameter.  Sometimes, the decision to remove one or more of the branches is obvious, but often takes great thought.  If there's one of several branches on the inside, it's usually the best one to take out, so the scar will be hidden and it will open up the canopy.  Liontailing is also to be avoided, where all smaller branches are removed from a larger branch except at the very tip.  Not at all sensible.  Also, take a look at almost every tree you pass by.  You'll see almost without exception, one or more branches coming out of the trunk about 6' off the ground.  This is usually done so that people can walk under them, and that's ok, though not always necessary.  Problem is, there's almost always more than one branch coming out in the same spot.
This is a clear no-no, and it creates a giant bulge.  The opposing branches should be staggered and separated by a discernable distance which varies by the size of the tree, thus avoiding various whorls or a huge swollen lump in that section of the tree.  And branches on the same side of the tree should be spaced appropriately, which will also vary.  It takes a keen eye to determine the right distance apart.  Nature determines much of that by node spacing.

2.  LEAVING STRAIGHT, UNTAPERED BRANCHES.  Branches in most trees naturally tend to taper noticeably, and usually don't keep going straight, but either curve or branch off in a slight direction, or divide into two or more smaller branches..  A lack of taper doesn't look right, but it also means the branch is probably too heavy at the end, and probaby too big in relation to the scale of the trunk or the overall tree.  This is common where someone either removed most of the secondary branches from the larger branch, or just let it grow too long, possibly while cutting some of the upper trunk.  Since growth is more vigorous at the tip, it lets girth accumulate faster toward the tip.  There's no exact formula, but a guideline is to avoid a branch being more than half the diameter of the trunk at the point of attachment.  Taking care of all this takes good diligence and ability to figure out how the tree is likely to grow.  Pay attention to oak trees in the wild.  They have curving, tapering branches and usually no whorls, and look fantastic.  They would l look even better if they were meticulously pruned all their lives.

The best scenario is to do more minor pruning more often, several times per year at crucial points, rather than once every year or every few years.  It shouldn't end up being a lot more work in the end, because every cut you make should help avoid multiple problems later.  More later....

You'll find all sorts of opinions on when to prune this or that.  It's seemingly quite complicated, and opinions on all sides are somewhat valid, even at opposite points of view .  After extensive research, I determined the only way to figure it out is to look at each specie separately, use a bunch of logic and experience, and determine the actual objective for each pruning session.  I'll have another post dedicated to all the specifics, which should clear all the confusion.  In any case, probably the worst times to prune are between September and late November/early December, but this can vary with climate, specie, and the objective at hand.   More later.....

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wonderful Tree #1: Arbutus Marina Strawberry Tree/Madrone

Arbutus marina.

This is a tree surprisingly unfamiliar to most people, especially outside of western California. Everything about it is terrific.  I would say it's among my 5 favorite tree species.  It makes a great specimen tree, especially for small yards.

'marina' strawberry tree - Google Search -

Cinnamon-red/gold polished bark like Manzanita but more golden, or Chilean Myrtle, which is more golden than the Arbutus.

Evergreen, looks great all year.

Pendants of small, white/magenta, bell-shaped flowers.

Bright orange-red unpleasant-after-tasting fruits with a yucky alum flavor, though the initial flavor is tasty for a few seconds.

Twisty branching pattern, usually curvy trunk.  Never looks lanky unless it's in the shade.  Usually quite lush and dense.  The trunk fills out nicely.

Usually up to about 25' tall x 15 ' wide.  Slow grower.

Not messy.

Full sun.  Easy to grow.  Fairly drought-tolerant.

Hardy down to about 25F.

Pruning not necessary except for perfectionists like me. And pruning can be tricky if you don't keep on top of them. Lower branches should be removed before too large in time to expose the beautiful trunk shape and color.

These are an improved variation on the spectacular native madrone trees seen at foothill elevations usually dominated by other trees, where the madrone finds little pockets to live.  Unfortunately, madrones are very hard to grow in cultivation due to fussiness about soil, drainage, etc.  The Marina seems to have overcome these issues.
The "unedo strawberry tree" is a smaller specie/cultivar even more common in nurseries, but the bark is not nearly as showy.  People often use them as hedges or shaped shrubs.

This tree is named "Marina" because this cultivar was discovered in the Marina district of San Francisco.  It's apparently a cross between two other cultivars from the Mediterranean, Western Europe and Asia..  The actual origin of this hybrid is probably fascinating but lost in time.

The largest specimen, at least in California, apparently is at San Marcos Growers.  It's about 45' tall x 53' wide with a trunk circumference of 9'.  Very impressive, though I haven't seen it yet.  The biggest one I've seen is at Madrona Manor in Healdsburg.

"Arbutus" is a Latin word but derived from a Celtic origin meaning "rough-fruited"  that would be accurate.  I already explained "marina" above  "Unedo", one of the suspected parent or grandparent species of the marina, means "I eat one" in Latin, since you may eat one, but never will want another.

You'll find this in many, but probably not most, nurseries.  You'll probably never find it in less than 5-gallon pots for whatever reason.  I bought a variegated-leaf specimen at U.C. Berkeley Arboretum in a 1-gallon pot in about August 2015, and there were several of those along with a few non-variegated buddies for sale.  Most of the 5-gallon specimens I've seen are pretty good, and haven't suffered the usual butchery from the growers that other juvenile trees have.

Like almost every tree I collect, I'll be keeping this in pots for an indefinite period, as a pseudo-bonsai, probably no more than 2 or 3 feet tall for years.  They seem to do pretty well in pots.  I'll be getting few more of these.  I also have a madrone I picked up at a native nursery in Berkeley, but don't have a lot of hope for keeping it alive.  I'll give it my best shot.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Terrible Trauma Trouble of Tasteless Tree Trimming

The older and pickier I become, the more I realize how badly managed most trees are.  Unless you go places where you have people taking care of them who really know what they're doing, almost all trees you see on a daily basis are a complete mess.

It doesn't help that most arborists have a terrible sense of form and proportion.  These guys should really know what they're doing.  But it would be like if fashion designers thought garments made out of potato sacks were perfectly fine.  Or if car designers thought Gremlins were the way cars should look.

There are some very basic guidelines that people should follow when it comes to keeping trees looking good, but almost nobody really gets it.  What a shame.

I'll probably make a list in another post with the ingredients of a good-looking tree.  Meanwhile, look at the trees around you and see if you cxan spot the problems.  It's a good exercise.  You can also study what makes a tree handsome based on its Mama Nature-given qualities.