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Pruning: a kindly cut for your trees

Pruning trees is a subject that crops up quite frequently in e-mail that I receive from readers of this column.

Many people feel uneasy about cutting limbs from their trees, even though they understand in principle that it's often a necessary and beneficial practice. "It feels as if I'm performing surgery without anesthetic," as one reader put it!

Let's take a look at the basics of pruning, and I'll also point you at some online resources you can access and that will give you a far more comprehensive understanding of pruning than we have room for here.

As Douglas F. Welsh, Extension Horticulturist at Texas A & M points out,

"Pruning, like any other skill, requires knowing what you are doing to achieve success. The old idea that anyone with a chain saw or a pruning saw can be a landscape pruner is far from the truth. More trees are killed or ruined each year from improper pruning than by pests."

But wait! Before you throw in the towel and give up before you even start, you can do a very good job of pruning your own trees if you follow a few relatively simple guidelines.

Why prune at all?

You are pruning to produce plants that are strong, healthy and attractive. An online publication produced by the U.S. Forestry Service reminds us that we should consider pruning for three main reasons: safety, health and aesthetics.

Safety: Tree limbs are heavy and when they fall or are torn off by bad weather, and they can cause serious injury or major damage to property. It's bad enough if it's you or your property that gets hit. But if a falling limb strikes a neighbor or passerby, the results can be very expensive!

Health: Removing dead, diseased or insect-infested limbs can save a tree's life and restore it to health. By thinning the "crown" you can also increase airflow through and around your tree, and a healthy tree is less likely to lose limbs during bouts of bad weather.

Aesthetics: When you prune with aesthetics as your priority, you're doing so to create a more pleasing shape or to stimulate flower production.

If your trees are located in close proximity to overhead power lines, I suggest you consider a "pre-emptive prune" before your local Utility company decides to come out and do the job for you. Now in this case, I'm certainly not recommending that you personally climb a wobbly ladder clutching a chainsaw and endangering life and limb. YOUR life and limb, that is, not the tree's. The high-up work is a job for professionals, so please hire a reliable firm of tree surgeons.

But let's stay closer to the ground for now.

To prune a live limb you need to locate the "branch collar" that grows from the stem tissue at the underside of the base of the branch, according to the U.S. Forestry web site on pruning. On the upper surface, there is usually a branch bark ridge that runs (more or less) parallel to the branch angle,

along the stem of the tree. Begin the cut just outside the branch bark ridge and angle it down and away from the stem of the tree. When you follow this basic step, you ensure a fairly rapid wound closure, maintaining a healthy tree.

As with any landscaping job, the right tools are essential if you expect to carry out a successful pruning.

On smaller limbs you can use pruning shears. There are two basic designs you can choose from: scissor action and anvil action. The main difference is

that with scissor action, a thin, sharp blade slides closely past a thicker but also sharp blade, whereas with anvil action, a sharpened blade cuts against a broad, flat blade. In either case, it is essential that blades

that are meant to be sharp really ARE sharp, or you'll simply end up tearing and shredding the limb instead of making a clean cut.

Higher and heavier limbs can be pruned using a pole-saw pruner. This basically consists of a hooked blade above and a cutting blade beneath. The cutter is on a pole and is operated by pulling a rope downward. I have to say that this can be risky! Cut limbs have a habit of falling suddenly and can strike whatever is below... including you! Wear a hard hat and eye protection at all times. Or employ a tree surgeon and let them worry about falling limbs!

You can find direct links to the following helpful Web resources when you find this column archived under the "Plant Man" heading at my web site www.landsteward.org