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Pruning for character

Unless you’re a naturalist with squirrel-like tendencies, there will come a point when you find reasons to interfere with a tree. That’s gardener-speak for pruning; and the cruelest cuts of all are guided by caprice, popular trend, and the thrill of power tools (heavy will be your conscience). Beyond text book pruning for health issues—repairing storm damage, increasing air circulation and removing dead or diseased wood—is there a defensible purpose for altering the form of a woody plant that has history and legend, older genes than your own, and the capability to live on into the next century? Well, yes, if your intention is to reveal the essential character of a tree, and perhaps explore your own.

Gardeners share space with trees, and it’s common sense that both parties must come to an accommodation of separate interests.  Healthy trees in good growing conditions tend to ‘over-grow’ themselves, producing more twigs and foliage than is needed. This is the practical nature of trees: by over-growing, they purchase insurance, a surfeit of wood, against possible loss and injury to limbs. That is a reasonable and prudent premise; but like a messy hair cut, it obscures the genius within. Wouldn’t just a bit of pruning adjustment, of twig-and-leaf clarification, reveal the true character lines of a tree?   

With barely a whiff of spring in the air, a well-prepared gardener is out the door early with sufficient Swedish blades, Japanese saws, and 20-foot extension polls to prune her way across a continent. But there’s a fine line between aesthetic improvement and excessive control. Perhaps I enjoy the tools just a little too much? Does interfering with the tree better illustrate its natural form, or am I savoring the choice (and the capability) of making irreversible changes? It’s a dark mirror that reflects a gardener’s true motivations, and I will say this: I find pleasure in tree pruning. I plan which techniques I’ll use, the cuts I’ll make, and feel a frisson—a sudden sensation of excitement when the season has finally arrived. I’m ready for it.

Bear in mind: I am armed, but the tree is not. Pruning is not a level playing field. With the advantage of modern steel tools comes the responsibility to be reasoned, rational, and purposeful in every cut. I take my time, think it through, and walk around the tree considering all the angles. Areas of congested foliage concealing heavy wood attract attention: that’s where adjustments will  reveal the tree’s inherent character.

Ready to proceed, I review the ethics of my intent:  a light touch only where necessary, and  avoid impulsive pruning gestures, cutting wood just because it’s easy to reach. And in a demonstration of selfless valour, put personal comfort last—no power tools allowed—they will only lead you to grief.  For this one day, I’m an artist of high purpose, creating a masterpiece from a lump of coal. Each adjustment to the tree’s form is meaningful—mostly to the tree, which is well aware of what I’m up to. Every cut registers in the biological intelligence of a woody plant, and initiates a replacement effort.  Next season it will begin replacing what I cut today.  

Studying the tree’s scaffold provides a visual map of heavy wood and where it goes. The thickest limbs carry long secondary branches. From the secondary branches come lighter branches that in turn carry smaller wood and twigs bearing the greatest density  of foliage.  Once you understand the ‘map’ of a tree’s wood structure, pruning to display character is immediately simplified. The only wood to contemplate removing is some of the lightest wood: just the thinnest branches and twigs.  Cutting too much insults the essential integrity of the tree, and results in a haphazard bonsai effect you will deeply regret. As a guideline, don’t remove more than one-quarter of the leaf-carrying twigs.

Most of the work should be done using hand pruners and loppers, perhaps with the aid of an extension pole; the largest tool permissible is a small pruning saw. Avoid the ‘overall approach’ of cutting wood from every section of the tree. Always be strategic, identifying areas of congestion and anticipating what thinning the mass of leaves or eliminating wood will reveal. Step back and consider if the central architecture is now more prominent. Walk around the tree again, looking for what you’ve missed.

You should now be able to see a clear image of the tree’s natural character. And you may even have had a taste of your own prowess for strategic thinking, resisting impulse, and taking responsibility for irrevocable decisions. It’s done, and all in a morning’s work.

Read more articles online from Judith Adam at Garden Making Magazine