Pruning (Dos & Don'ts)

People have a peculiar notion that all trees should be pruned.  

Apple trees benefit greatly from judicious pruning.  So do peach trees.  But, enough is enough, everything in its place and all that.  If you could see the carnage wrought upon otherwise happy and shapely street trees and patio trees of all descriptions by well-meaning tree-whackers!

People—so few people now—are brought up around orchards and so on . . . Things that once seemed common-sense-obvious now are elevated to arcane mysteries.

Each species of tree has its own “character”—strength, grace, elegance, etc.  Oaks are symbols of tough, durable strength.  Just try sawing off one branch if you doubt.  You can stand on a branch an  inch thick and count on it not to let you down.  A persimmon branch the same size will snap off at a tug.  Willows are flexible, persimmons are brittle.

How many gorgeous flowering cherry trees have been forever ruined, their elegant, willowy, arching branches hacked to unsightly stubs that will never, ever recover from the insult.  Even conifers are often spoiled in this way.  I’ve even seen them with their leaders cut off!  Like those poor Christmas tres made to look more like hedges than trees.  (No doubt done by the ubiquitous example of the current “poodle” Christmas tree style.)  

Sometimes cutting too many branches will give the tree such a shock that it dies, or gives up, thinking you want it dead, or it exposes the tree to too much sun, which can scald and burn and crack and scar the remaining trunk and branches. 

Here are a few general pointers:

Except for shaping a young tree—and carefully/sparingly at that—leave most flowering and shade trees the hell alone.  Look for yourself.  Any suburban street is likely to have some pink-flowered plums.  Look at those that have never been altered, with their dense, virtually impenetrable thicket of twiggy branches, and each twig covered in pink flowers.  That tree is happy, and it is right.  The tree knows what is good for it, what its shape ought to be.  Contrast one that has been treated like an apple tree—opened up and thinned out and headed back—a travesty.

Trees are not all alike and you shouldn’t try to make them all alike.  Some have dense branches, some sparse; some are twiggy, some not; some have wide-spreading, horizontal branches, some fastigiate.

By shaping I mean, not topiary, not carving, but giving balance—not too many more branches on one side than another, and good spacing to the branches (but without changing the natural density of the tree).  And, removing stray “wild” branches and crossing branches, etc. (and of course removing suckers from below the graft).  And, establishing the height of trunk you desire (although don’t try to make a tree out of a shrub—it will fail in the long run, or at least be a constant fight).