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!