Sunday, February 7, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a Tree Dawg Knight!

Friday, February 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cutting Up: Pruning Cuts, Reasons and Exceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TreeDawg out.