Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

-- The Book of Proverbs

These kids today get no discipline. They do what they want, when they want, and they don't care who's watching. As a result, many of them are doomed to spend their adult lives confined, either physically or emotionally. Not much different with trees. When saplings in a landscape setting are left to grow however they see fit, they'll stretch forth their limbs and leaves wherever they take a notion, and once they reach maturity, it may become necessary to do an intensive lopping to keep them out of utilities, off the roof, or away from other landscaping. Unfortunately, the sawing that must be done at such a late point in the game can be very detrimental to the tree's health and aesthetic value.

Of course, trees put forth their branches for a reason, and they'll do it in the manner which most efficiently meets the biological needs of the tree itself. Trees can generate their own 'food.' They can compartmentalize their own wounds (for their wounds never 'heal.') So, they certainly dont need the human race to meet their physiological requirements. But when a tree is taken out of a natural setting and placed in a planned landscape, the natural design doesn't always jibe with the man-made ideal. Its in this interface of man and nature that pruning is sometimes necessary.

The wisest pruning of all
The most important pruning phase for a landscape contractor is before the tree is even planted. Going beyond the 'this tree would look good there' mentality, the contractor can save himself a lot of work, the client a lot of grief and the tree a lot of cutting. Says Dr. Alex Shigo, renowned tree biologist and tree care author, "You can train a tree from the time it is young so that it will never get tall, number one. Number two, you can select a tree that never will get tall. You can plant or not plant a tree in a place where, later on, you're going to have the need for a view. Baby elephants do grow up."

Survey the landscape carefully, noting the proximity of the proposed planting site to power and phone lines, septic systems, sidewalks and other stationary systems. Then, work with the property owner in choosing a tree that will meet the client's landscaping goals without outgrowing its space. In this regard, it pays for the landscape contractor to have a solid understanding of the growth habits of any trees that might be recommended, or otherwise consult an arborist or urban forester.

Serving the clients and the profession
One will soon discover that wise pruning practices may seem to be going against the grain, as some clients will have strong notions as to what proper pruning really means. Mitch Hintze, certified arborist and director of marketing for the Boise, Idaho-based Pro Care Landscape Management, Inc., shares this example of a conflict that occurred when he was employed by another company:

He and another employee were pruning trees and shrubs around a townhouse complex with instructions to prune what needed pruning. His partner noticed a gangling rose bush near a common area and proceeded to prune it down to seven to ten inches. "He did a picture perfect job as far as what was in the textbooks," says Hintze.

Unfortunately, the owner of the rose didnt read that textbook. When she came home, she was livid and couldnt understand why anyone would do such a thing to this beautiful rose given to her by her grandmother.
Says Hintze, "That's one example of where, even though we had instructions to go ahead and do things as they should be done, to her, that wasn't the way it should've been done. She wanted them tall and ugly and lanky, but that wasn't her perception."

The other side of the coin, however, is that if you prune a tree to the client's ideal, and that isn't in line with proper technique, you could be hoisting a banner for your company that screams 'unprofessional.' Therefore, it pays to make a decision as to what you will do and what you won't in regards to pruning. While Hintze may sometimes agree to follow through on a client's pruning request that isn't by the book, he'll also walk away from some requests, especially if the tree is in a right-of-way area or in an area where the public has access -- or even visual access.

A client interview is a good practice to discover what the owner of the tree wants and to express the limitations of one's company. It's here that the landscape professional can also don the hat of an educator. Hintze offers this suggestion: "Companies can better serve their clients by getting an understanding of the expectations and perceptions that they have."

Interviewing the client is an effective way to discover what is expected, and to disclose what you as a company can/cannot, will/will not do regarding pruning. Perception is everything. There is usually no problem. However, if a proper and correct pruning does not meet the client's expectations or perception of being correct, or proper, to him it is a problem. No matter how right a company might be, the client's perception is nearly always reality. Therefore, contractors should make sure that it is possible to satisfy the customer. Combine the client's expectations and perceptions with proper pruning practices and guidelines, and you're likely to have success and pleased clients.

The technique
Several reasons for pruning a landscape tree exist, but some of the most common are risk reduction, aesthetic effect, improvement of tree vigor and health, and vista creation/maintenance. If faced with a situation that might require pruning, the contractor should first note the tree's relative age.

Generally, newly planted trees (i.e., first year planting) should only be pruned to remove damaged branches. Once a tree has been on a site for a few years, then it's acceptable to do additional pruning, if necessary.
When pruning a small tree, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) recommends training the tree to have a 'strong trunk with sturdy, well-spaced branches.' The tree should have a single leader (a dominant, upright stem, which shouldn't be pruned), and the secondary branches shouldn't be allowed to outgrow it.

For mature trees, pruning should be minimal and reserved for have-to situations, as these wounds will typically be larger and will require more time and energy to compartmentalize. Pruning a mature tree can affect its energy reserves to the extent that its capacity for defense is impacted, leaving an open door for pathogens to enter. If it's determined by the contractor that a large limb needs to be removed, ISA recommends the three-cut method:

  • Make an undercut approximately 12-18 inches from the limb's point of attachment.
  • Make a second cut directly above the undercut or a few inches beyond.
  • Cut off the stub to the branch collar.

Based on the industry standard for tree maintenance, ANSI A300-1995 (currently under revision), offers some additional dos and don'ts for tree pruning:

  • Do use sharp tools to prevent tears in the bark.
  • Do use thinning cuts as opposed to heading cuts.
  • Do leave 50 percent of the foliage -- evenly distributed -- on the lower two-thirds of the tree's crown.
  • Do not make a cut flush with the trunk or branch.
  • Do not top a tree.
  • Do not remove more than 25 percent of the foliage from a single branch.
  • Do not remove more than 25 percent of the total foliage in a year.
  • Do not use paint or wax to dress a wound on a tree.

And while such guidelines are important for any contractor approaching a pruning project, Shigo suggests a deeper philosophy, one in which a healthy understanding of tree biology is key: "Nature doesn't have rules [or laws]. It has principles. The difference between a law and a principle is that a law is 100 percent. They're absolute, whereas a principle always has a little bit of ragged edges on it and follows the old bell-shaped curve. Education," says Shigo, "should be considered as important as training, because education tells us why we do something instead of just explaining how. Where there is no education, the profession becomes an army of robots.

November December 2001