Training trees at a young age will prevent trouble later
Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 8:01 pm
By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Special to The Messenger
Train up a tree in the way it should go, and when it is old it will not depart from it.
Well, I guess it is no sin to paraphrase King Solomon. If it is, it won’t be the first.
Anyhow, the wise one’s advice on rearing a son fits just as well in the realm of horticulture, to wit: The training of trees.
You know, “As the twig is bent,” etc., etc., etc.
Unlike training sons, however, there is generally only one chance to get it right with a tree. Make the wrong (or no) cut(s) and down the road there’s trouble. If, perchance, correction is administered after the tree is well along in years, a foot-thick limb is far more of a problem than an inch-thick branch.
So, there you stand, brow furrowed with perplexity, in front of your 10-foot maple or oak. The loppers and saw are as so much dead weight in your hands, and fear grips your throat as you tentatively reach toward the first cut. Where, oh where?
There’s a great difference between training and corrective pruning. The former will prevent much of the latter.
As a rule, a young shade tree should be limbed up gradually over several years until the lowest branches forming the canopy are well off the ground. How far off, you understandably ask.
It depends on the species and variety of tree, but those with naturally ascending (upward growing) branches don’t need to be limbed up as much as those with lower branches that sag.
A prime example of the latter is the pin oak, one of the most popular of the oaks and one of the fastest growing. The natural inclination of the pin oak is for the lowest branches to droop. In some extreme cases, when no pruning is done, the ends of those branches will touch the ground.
This habit necessitates severe limbing up, taking off the lowest branches at the trunk for several years after planting. We have just such a tree, now some 33 years old or so, that abuts our front drive.
It has, over the years, been limbed up until the lowest branch is now some 20 feet off the ground, raising the canopy so that cars may be parked underneath and no branch will knock your hat off when alighting from your ride.
Other trees, say something like a yellow poplar, have branches that grow upward and do not droop to any extent. Even these, however, require some removal of lower branches if they are not to interfere with mowing or other activity underneath. The need will not be as severe as with the droopers like the pin oak.
Most other oaks, as well, reach upward naturally. If I had it to do over, I would have planted a red oak where that pin oak is and there would have been less need for the regular limbing up in its early years.
There are a few cases that beg for little or no pruning. A notable example is with the southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora. These are icons in the southern states, where they are native, naturally growing in lowlands and swamps and often called bullbay.
They are excellent ornamentals. Some varieties (i.e. Little Gem, Teddy Bear) are relative dwarfs, growing to perhaps 20 feet, while the straight species and most of its other varieties can reach 60 feet or more and can be nearly as wide.
All of them incessantly drop litter the year round. In the spring (not fall) it is old leaves. Then, after the immaculate bloom falls and seed pods are formed, these drop more or less constantly all year.
When the canopy is raised as just described with the droopers, all that litter is constantly exposed. The heavy leaves don’t easily dissolve under the hammer of mower blades and neither do the seedpods.
So it’s rake, rake and rake, and even then it won’t be spotless under the tree. Then too, it is almost impossible to get any kind of groundcover to grow under a southern magnolia.
So, the obvious answer is to let the branches sway to the ground. The evergreen leaves will do a yeoman job in hiding all that litter and the latter will eventually break down into nourishment for the tree.No grass will exist under the dark canopy, so no maintenance is needed, save mowing right up to the edge of the outermost branches.
These few basic examples should give you an idea on how to treat other similar trees.
Just remember, sooner is better than later.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 7.28.09
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path