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The Role of Pruning in Tree Care

Pruning can seem like a straightforward strategy, but, for best results, it is important to understand how, when, and where to cut a tree. If you are not sure what you are doing and why, it's best to consult an expert about how to prune a tree to help it live longer and grow stronger, rather than merely doing damage.


Why prune?

Pruning means selectively removing branches to help a tree grow stronger. Correct pruning helps a tree fit into the space allocated for it. Correct pruning can open up the tree canopy to allow light to reach all parts of the tree more evenly, promoting even development. Correct pruning can also help stimulate the growth of fruit or flowers.


Choosing the right type of pruning

Pruning can be done according to several techniques, depending on the age of the tree and the effect you want to achieve. Here are some common pruning techniques.

* Crown Thinning -- Selectively removing the weaker branches along the crowns of younger trees. This promotes better health by increasing air movement and sunlight penetration.

* Crown Raising -- Removing the lowest branches in developing and mature trees to allow more free space between the trees' branches and other plants, grass, sidewalks, streets, etc.

* Crown Reduction -- Removing large branches at the tops of trees to reduce height. When crown reduction is correctly done, no stubs are left. Crown reduction pruning is a less desirable practice and should be done only when necessary.

* Crown Cleaning -- Selectively removing dead, dying, or diseased branches from the crown.

* Structural Training -- Light pruning of young trees to ensure a strong structure with evenly distributed branches, removing suckers and "codominant" trunks.

* Emergency Pruning -- Removing ragged edges, stubs, and stumps when branches are broken by wind, snow, heavy loads of fruit, etc.

* Pest Control -- Removing twigs that are swollen or deformed due to insect or fungus infestation.

* Espalier Pruning/Training -- Removing some branches to encourage other branches to grow into a trellis formation. This can make flowering trees more decorative and fruit easier to harvest.

* Maintenance Pruning -- Removing undesirable twigs and branches to maintain the shape of a well formed and balanced tree.

* Pollarding -- Cutting branches very close to the main trunk. This is a drastic, aggressive measure that occasionally becomes necessary to restore the strength and formation of a tree. Pollarding can also be used to control the growth of trees in small spaces. Some species tolerate pollarding well and heal quickly. However, even trees that tolerate pollarding will need regular maintenance pruning, and pollarding can damage bark and branches. In Texas, pollarding techniques applied to crape myrtle bushes acquired the nickname of "crape murder." Beech trees and most conifers should never be pollarded.

* Watersprout Removal -- After weather damage or heavy pruning, especially after pollarding, trees often produce many thin new vertical shoots pointing straight up from the damaged or pruned area. These "watersprouts" are not viable growth and should be removed.

* Dormant Pruning -- General term for any type of pruning done during a tree's dormant season (the usual time for pruning).

* Summer Pruning -- Pruning that, for emergencies or for special purposes, is done while the tree is growing.


Trees benefit from proper pruning

prune a tree to help it live longer and grow stronger

Although pruning removes growth from a tree, when properly done it stimulates new growth in directions that may be healthier for the tree in the long run. Lack of air movement within the tree can promote fungus growth. Ragged edges can invite insects to hollow out the tree. Long unbalanced branches will break down naturally--possibly into city streets. In nature an individual tree's survival is largely up to chance. In a garden, the gardener can improve a tree's chances by pruning to correct conditions that might lower the tree's chance of survival.

Some flowering bushes and trees produce flowers only on new growth. In some species, like raspberries, old growth naturally decays fast. In others, like roses and wisteria, old growth may compete with new growth and prevent bloom formation.

While moderately pruned fruit trees bear more fruit sooner than heavily pruned fruit trees, fruit trees (Prunus species, particularly) bear more fruit and live longer, healthier lives if they are correctly pruned.


When in doubt, seek professional help

People who have successfully cultivated the same type of trees in the same area are likely to be good sources of pruning advice. Tree care companies, whose reputation depends on their knowing when and how to prune all kinds of trees, are the logical place to look for expert help to care for your trees.

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