May 1 2005 12:00 AM

Of all the living creatures in the care of a landscape contractor, trees can be the most unforgiving. Much like a child, how they are disciplined in their youth will determine how they grow up. The guidance you provide that young sapling will effect how it grows. And how it grows will affect how much work awaits you in that tree’s future.

The best approach to pruning doesn’t involve saws and ladders; all it requires is a little foresight before even planting the tree. If you’re involved in the selection process, recommend the appropriate tree to your client depending on several factors. Of course, the client may have a particular type of tree they want planted. Armed with knowledge you can influence that decision, especially if the client is heading down the wrong garden path.

First and foremost, pay careful attention to landscape, noting the location of immovable objects that can be either damaged or get in the way as the tree matures. Power lines are of particular concern as most municipalities don’t like the mix of branches and electricity. Avoid planting trees directly under power lines. It will save you and your client lots of grief.


The location of septic systems and water lines should also be high on your list of what to look out for. As a tree matures, its unseen roots can wreck havoc to underground pipes, costing the property owner thousands of dollars. Sidewalks and phone lines can also fall victim to unbridled growth.

It is for those reasons, you should work with you client in selecting a tree that will satisfy their landscaping needs, without outgrowing the space where it will be planted. This is where your knowledge of trees and their growth habits will pay off in dividends. But remember, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. Don’t present yourself as an expert if you’re not. Consult with an arborist before making an uninformed decision.

Now in an ideal world, you would have a say in selecting all the trees in your care; but in the real world, you will have to play the hand that you’re dealt. Depending on their size and location, pre-existing trees will need to be managed. Keeping that undisciplined child in line begins with pruning.

Generally, newly planted trees should only be pruned to remove damaged branches. The goal at this stage of development is to help it produce a strong structure that will provide the framework of the mature tree. By properly training young trees, they will develop a strong structure that requires less corrective pruning as they mature. In a few years, additional pruning can be performed as necessary. Usually the most common reasons for pruning trees fall under these categories: risk reduction; aesthetic effect; improvement of tree vigor and health; and vista creation and maintenance.

Risk reduction involves the removal of branches that could fall and cause injury or damage to property. While the property owner may bring this to your attention, more than likely, if you don’t notice it, the problem while go unaddressed until it’s too late.

Since you’re regularly servicing the property, it just makes sense to keep your eyes open for any situations where safety is compromised. When possible, bring it to the property owner’s attention before doing the work. But don’t hesitate to take action. This is a perfect example of where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Your client will be grateful for the economic and legal woes you’ve helped him avoid; and the goodwill your preventive measure generates will translate into priceless word of mouth advertising and increased business.

While pruning for aesthetic affect may sound like the superficial equivalent of plastic surgery, in fact, it has a functional value. Done properly, aesthetic pruning will stimulate flower growth, while enhancing the natural form and character of the tree.

You want to consider the tree’s natural form before trying to impose some unachievable ideal. The most common shape a tree’s crown will take is either pyramidal or spherical. The strong central stem of trees with pyramidal crowns rarely has to compete with lateral branches for dominance.

Trees with spherical crowns will have many lateral branches that often compete for dominance. Nature will often do its own self-pruning, shedding branches that do not produce enough carbohydrates from photosynthesis and die. Additional pruning will not only remove unsightly branches that were splintered by nature, but will also help increase the tree’s strength and longevity by encouraging wound closure.

A tree’s vigor and health can also be improved by removing insect-infested and diseased wood before the invaders can spread and infest healthy portions of the tree. Pruning branches that are rubbing together can improve air flow by thinning the crown. This helps promote a strong structure that gives the tree a fighting chance during severe weather occurrences.

The maintenance and creation of vistas may dominate the attention trees in your care receive. Whether it’s to shape the trees to fit a particular look, or create a desirable vista that the client desires, it’s still imperative that you consider the needs of the tree. Educating your client will go a long way in helping them realize what can be done, what can’t be done, and what should be done.

Before taking out that saw or tree pruner, you should take note of the tree’s relative age.
When pruning a small tree, experts recommend shaping the tree so it has a strong trunk with sturdy, well-spaced branches. You want to make sure it has a single, dominant stem that shouldn’t be pruned, with secondary branches that shouldn’t be allowed to outgrow the dominant stem.

Since every cut you make has the potential to alter how the tree will grow, don’t just randomly make a cut because you think it will look good. Make sure there’s a reason for every cut you make. Your mistakes will last the life of a tree.

It’s best to begin training a young tree during the dormant season following planting. Pruning to shape young trees is acceptable, but never cut back the leader. Remove branches that grow back toward the center of the tree. And as the tree matures, remove branches that are spaced too closely on the trunk, along with lower branches as to gradually raise the crown.

The older the tree, the more careful you have to be when pruning. Cutting its limbs and branches can affect its energy reserves, lessening its natural defenses and opening the door for insects and pathogens. Because mature trees are usually larger than younger trees, the wounds from pruning will also be larger and take considerably more time to heal.

Generally, the most common types of pruning on a mature tree involve crown thinning, crown raising and crown reduction.

Crown thinning helps increase the light penetration and air movement throughout the tree. You must be careful when selectively removing branches with no more than one-quarter of the living crown to be removed at any time. If more needs to be removed, it’s best to do it over several years to avoid unnecessary stress to the tree.

Crown raising involves the removal of branches from the bottom of a tree to provide necessary clearances. More than likely, this will be the primary pruning on the properties on your route. Be sure to leave enough branches in the crown. The ratio of living crown to total tree height should be at least two-thirds.

Crown reduction is considered a method of last resort, and is used when a tree has grown too large for the space where it was planted. Also known as drop crotch pruning, it is preferred over topping because it minimizes stress to the tree, has a more natural appearance, and when done properly, will increase the time between prunings.

Choosing the right tool for the job before you start will save you a lot of headaches further down the road. The sizes of the branches to be cut will determine whether you use hand pruners, lopping shears, pruning saws or a chain saw. Whatever your choice, make sure cutting surface of the tool is sharp and clean. A dull blade or chain can tear the bark; a clean tool will help prevent the spread of disease.

There are some universally agreed upon guidelines for how and when pruning should be done. Late winter, just before the spring growth spurt begins is best for the tree. Whatever wounds are caused by pruning will only be exposed for a short period of time before new growth will bring about the healing process. And since leaves won’t block your view of the branches, you’ll be able to better assess what needs to be trimmed

Carful pruning helps keep trees healthy and gives them a longer life.

Pruning cuts on a permanent branch should be made at the point where one branch or twig attaches to another, known as a node. You want to prune above a bud facing the outside of the tree in order to force the new branch to grow in that direction. Avoid cuts made between branches, known as internodal cuts; that can lead to sprout production, stem decay and misdirected growth

The preferred technique for pruning large branches involves what is called the three-cut method. This will allow for the removal of an unwanted branch while avoiding tearing the bark. It involves making an undercut 12”-18” from the limb’s point of attachment. Then, make a second cut above the undercut, about an inch past it. Keep cutting until the branch breaks free.

Finally, cut off the stub just outside the branch collar. This is critical step. You will damage the tree unnecessarily if you remove the branch collar because it contains trunk or parent branch tissue. Injuring this stem tissue will effect the time it takes for the tree to heal. You want it to heal as soon as possible.

Always keep in mind that a tree is a living creature, the oldest living creature on this planet. Some of the trees in your care were probably there before you were born. If you do a good job, they will be there long after you’re gone.

Joyce Kilmer wrote, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree… A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray… Poems are made my fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

Trees may be God’s work, but caring for them is man’s work. Keeping these majestic creatures alive is a noble cause. By following some basic guidelines, the trees in your care will be a shining example of poetry in motion.