tree pruning

Just leave the damn tree alone.

Balancing myself up in the canopy of a sturdy white oak earlier this week, it occurred to me how closely arbiter and arborist are in meaning as well as spelling. In addition to the inevitable landscaping disagreements between spouses that I'm often expected to resolve, my primary job as an arborist is to somehow reconcile what the homeowner wants with what the tree wants. The homeowner wants PRUNING, and the tree, well, it just wants to be let alone.

People get it in their heads that the tree is just standing there in immobilized agony wishing it could communicate it's desire for copious pruning. Not only does the tree not want to be bothered with your surgical urgings, it'll probably flip you some serious attitude. I call it "panic epicormic sprouting" and I have personal experience. I've carefully cut off branches and have been rewarded with the emergence of five or six new branches in the same spot to deal with. That's tree attitude.

Some tree "experts" have turned this into a pretty profitable business plan. They come over to your property and prune the living hell out of the interior of your tree. Nice and tidy (arborists call this kind of damaging pruning "lion tailing"- get the visual picture?). Lucky for the "experts", the tree freaks and pushes out twice as much growth to compensate the following season.

Call it job security. Beware of the tree company that charges by the branch.

Mature trees need occasional maintenance pruning. The 5 d's are often presented as reasons to prune anytime:

1. Damaged

2. Diseased

3. Deformed

4. Dangerous

5. Dying

Prune your trees when they are young to create good structure and shape (a future blog post), but leave your mature trees unmolested by your good intentions.

During the summer I imagine myself as having long stretches of time in the winter to work on brilliant, paradigm changing landscape design ideas. More often than not come January, a good month after my crew has performed their seasonal mutiny, I find myself alone swinging high in the branches of a tree.

I usually prefer to perform arborist work in the winter (and with a ground crew), but on this day several weeks ago I was struggling to climb a Sycamore tree after a heavy snow. Sycamore trees have smooth bark and can be tricky to maneuver around in dry weather. With a foot of snow on the elephantine limbs, it was proving to be next to impossible. From the look the little old lady next door was shooting me, it was probably verging on the obscene as well.

I made it 3/4ths of the way up the huge tree, stopped to catch my breath & had a look around. I noticed something I hadn't seen at ground level. In this older neighborhood I could see a distinct difference between the trees in the front yards as compared to the ones in the back. Most of the trees in the front yards were in pretty bad shape, whereas the ones in the back were healthy. It was easy to see what the difference was: the trees in the front yards had been given bucket truck tree "care" but the ones in the back (i.e. the ones the bucket truck "tree care providers" couldn't get to) were specimens of health and forest grandeur. Tree climbers don't do extra, unnecessary work like hacking off the top of trees.

But I get it. People get spooked about big trees hanging around their homes. They have visions of gigantic limbs falling through their roofs and crushing loved ones. They call Mr. Bucket Truck to bring these trees down to a "safe" height by topping, reducing and generally ravaging the tree. The irony is two-fold. First, the tree reacts by going into overtime to regrow the lost crown (convenient for Mr. Bucket Truck next year). Secondly, multiple new limbs emerge Hydra-like from each cut and are weakly attached to the tree at wound points that allow disease to infiltrate the tree. The very efforts intended to make the tree safer often do just the opposite.

I'd spent considerable time with this particular home owner trying to convince him that his trees were in great shape and only needed basic pruning. He looked dubious but finally seemed to acquiesce to my firm belief that the trees did not need to be "lowered". I still haven't got paid so maybe I didn't convince him?

UPDATE: I got paid.