Toronto Star column – published February 8, 2014
Healing Powers of Pruning
Some day soon the effects of the now famous ice storm on the trees in your neighbourhood and yard will reveal themselves in all of their fullness. All we need is a good old-fashioned mid-winter Toronto thaw.
As the snow and ice disappear, many thoughts will run through the heads of real estate owners, especially those with mature trees on their property. Will I clean up the mess myself or call in a professional? What do I do with damaged trees and shrubs that do not require removal? How do I prune them to greatest effect for the long-term health and appearance of the tree/shrub?
I am here with another ‘fridge magnet’ story that you may want to hang onto for that day when favourable weather conditions and personal ambition intersect. For me, this will occur while holding my second cup of coffee and staring out the kitchen window perusing the ‘ice storm mess’ before me. This is a story for the ‘do-it-yourselfer’. Pruning 101.
What tools do I need?
Hand pruners. These are for light work. Use hand pruners for shaping existing tree branches and for reaching into young, woody growth to remove one to three year old growth that has bent over and broken under the weight of the ice. Good quality hand pruners run between $25 and $80.
Pruning saw. Forget the cross-cut and the rip saw in the basement, a pruning saw is designed for the unique purpose of cutting through green, living wood. It has teeth that are arranged alternately so that you get a ‘purchase’ on the wood on the fore stroke and the backstroke. This way you use less energy when cutting branches and limbs. A hand-held pruning saw will cut wood up about 10 cm [4 inches] in diameter, sometimes larger, depending on the wood. A soft wood like linden, up to 15 cm or 6 inches in diameter, for example, can be pruned nicely with a pruning saw.
The secret to a truly effective cut [and with the least amount of effort] is a sharp saw. If you have an old one, either sharpen it, replace the blade or buy a new one. A good pruning saw should not cost you more than $25.
Loppers. Both anvil and by-pass type loppers can be very effective at cutting green wood up to 8 cm or 3 inches in diameter. These generally require less effort and work more quickly than a pruning saw [especially the ratcheting type], but if you cut a branch that is too big for the tool, the cutting blades will twist. The permanent damage can be frustrating to deal with. This is where being a man has its disadvantages. We often ask more of our tools than they were designed to deliver. Or, is it just me? I have trashed more than one pair by being overly aggressive, or, as my wife might say, stupid.
Pole Pruner. A good quality pole pruner can pay for itself many times over if you know how to use it and especially if having one on hand saves you from calling in a professional. There are a couple of caveats, however. First, the pruning saw on the end of your pole pruner has its limitations [as, I’ve learned, all of these tools do]. Do not attempt to cut a tree limb that is more than, say, 10 cm or 4 inches in diameter.
Secondly, fatigue. Like painting a ceiling, your arms are just not designed to be held aloft for long periods of time. The leverage of a 7 meter pole pruner, extended to its max, can be awkward to say the least. I recommend that you practice on some lower limbs first, working your way up to the most lofty specimens.
Third, safety. You really don’t want a tree limb to fall on your head. Wear a safety helmet [like that is going to happen] or take small sections off the limb at a time, starting with sections that are the greatest distance from the main trunk of the tree.
Do not stand on a ladder with the pole pruner extended.
Work with a buddy who can assist you, guide you to branches that may not be visible to you from your vantage point, and who can laugh at you while you try your best to get it right. This is cheap entertainment.
What to cut?
Branches that have broken will need to be removed. Ideally, you should cut minor branches back to where they meet a major branch or the main trunk of the tree. Make a cut about 1/3 through the bottom of the branch first and then cut it through from the top. This way you will avoid stripping bark off the trunk of your tree under the weight of a falling branch.
Branches that have splintered under the weight of the ice will also have to be removed.
Branches that are bent down, but not broken, perhaps with the top of the stem facing the ground, like it is saying a prayer, can be staked into an upright position come spring. For now just leave them alone. As the sap rises in permanent trees and shrubs come April, many will find their way into a natural, upright position. I have my fingers crossed that the 3 meter high cedars in my hedge will do just that. I have witnessed it before. Birch is another tree that will stand more upright as the sap rises.
Prune for Shape.
After repair of damaged wood is considered, you should ‘prune for shape’. In other words, think about the ultimate look that you are trying to achieve with each permanent plant in your yard. This is an opportunity for you to get it right for the long run. With this in mind, stand back from each specimen and study it with an eye to achieving the look that you want.
It is very handy to have some hair cutting experience in your background, but even if you don’t, chances are you have had a few haircuts in your time. Ask yourself, “What is the hairdresser/barber thinking when they approach the task of cutting my hair?” The answer can be quite informing where pruning is concerned.
Finally, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of caution. Do not over extend yourself or the capabilities of your tools.
If you harbor doubt with regards to your ability to prune damaged trees and shrubs, either seek help from someone more experienced or call in an arborist for a consult. There is a reason why a certified arborist has extensive education and training: they learn how to maximize the life of a tree, in spite of the damage that may have occurred to it. There is a lot of value in what they do and they deserve every cent that they earn.
And one word of optimism: remember that the ice storm was a product of nature – she has brought weather events like this on us before and will again. The natural defenses built into every tree prove the remarkable healing powers of nature. Sometimes we just need to be patient.