Monday, February 8, 2010

Tree Pruning, Part Three: Revealing the grace

A tree left alone in nature will grow however it grows, and for the most part, it will do just fine without any human intervention. So except for those circumstances I outlined in Thursday's post where pruning is necessary either for the health of the tree or to protect property, the real reason we like to get out the pruning tools is the same reason we like to poke sticks into steaming compost bins--because we are gardeners, first and foremost, and the acts of gardening are part of a tender, ongoing conversation with the natural world. So then should our tree pruning reflect that.

The photo above and the ones immediately following are a few trees around town in which I think pruning has enhanced the form, or growth habit, of the species, and revealed the inherent grace:

In each of these, branches were selectively removed to thin the interior and balance the look of the tree. By contrast, and to emphasize how thinning the interior branches can improve the look, here is another tree that could use the same treatment:

This tree apparently is doing just fine, health-wise, but it lacks the elegance of the others. Because so many interior branches have been left on the tree, it is difficult to appreciate the form. A closer look at the tree reveals some branches that could easily be removed to enhance the form, starting with those branches that are crossing each other:

Trees like these make me want to break out my pruning saw and do a little guerilla gardening. Not that I would ever do anything like that.

Ideally, this tree would have been pruned when it was younger to grow into a mature shape that had fewer main branches in the center. But even now, some of those branches could be removed to open it up and show the tree's form to its best advantage. As I stated in an earlier post, you wouldn't want to remove more than about 25% of the tree's crown in any given year, but even so, a little could go a very long way at this point. As to how to know what to prune, I'd remove the crossing branches the first year. That alone might be sufficient to bring out the grace trapped inside. If not, then each year after that, I'd compare the tree to others that appealed to me to get a general sense of which interior branches to remove, taking off a few at a time until I'd achieved the look I wanted.*

*It will be very difficult when it is this tightly packed, though, and probably impossible to do with a chainsaw, which may explain why no one has done it.


  1. Guerilla pruning would certainly make for an interesting experience...It's hard to imagine not attracting behavior with a chain saw!

    This series has been very helpful and I see the wisdom of pruning young trees. I am going to take a look at a few and see imagine which branches need to go.


  2. So much to say...

    In Houston, there are a few Champion Live Oaks that have a single branch spanning a couple of yards (as in front yards of different houses). The people in these neighborhoods have propped up the branch so they can walk under it. Very impressive.

    When I lived there, I had two main purposes in pruning my Live Oaks. First, I had to be able to walk under the tree without getting whacked. Second, I trimmed out some of the crown to get light down to the lower limbs (so they could whack me). I had one lower limb that was starting to cross over my neighbor's driveway, but he didn't want it there, so one day, it just disappeared. Bummer.

    As to the guerrilla pruning. Just slap a magnet on the side of your truck, fill your truck bed with a lot of junk (like an old water heater), throw on some coveralls and you can prune all day. Heck, the building manager will probably come out and kibitz. But I can assure you that no one will suspect that you do not have authorization to be there. hehe.

  3. Oh yeah, forgot to say: 25% is a pretty severe limit. If I pruned less than 25% of the unwanted crown in any given year, the next year I would have more tangle than previously. Healthy Live Oaks in South Texas can put on some serious growth.

  4. Gail--Oh, I wouldn't use a chain saw. My saw would be one I could hide on my person and then whip it out when nobody was looking. Not that I would ever do something like that.

    Jack--Is this what you do when you are under three feet of snow in VA? Dream of Live Oaks in Houston?

    So much to say back atcha...I can just picture those Live Oak branches spanning the yards. What are people thinking?

    Your comment about lower limbs and trimming them to not be whacked is a good one. The majority of the world's population is a whole foot shorter than you it must be very frustrating to go to other people's yards, where they have only trimmed for their height. :-P Time for guerilla pruning, I think. ;-D

    Speaking of the guerilla pruning, your advice on how to get away with it is sound. You know I'd never have the guts to do it, though. Plus, I don't own a truck. Say, wait a minute. *You* own a truck, and this sounds like the voice of experience...;-D

    25% is conservative, and you're right, it's probably too conservative for live oaks. Dad used to say 25-30%, but I err on the side of caution.

    Finally, Dad taught us well, didn't he?

  5. Nice collection of silhouettes. I know what you mean about pruning because we are gardeners (and also garden bloggers with cameras). I was just in Baja, finding myself wanting my felcos or loppers to do just a little bit of clean up (also feeling bummed because a lot of the locals do their pruning with a machete). Though the trees down there do remarkably well without any help from me.


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