EVERGREEN ARBORIST: Prune now to enjoy fruits of your labor

The winter pruning season is upon us. To date La Niña has spared us the often-predicted severe weather. So it is about time to think about breaking out the clippers, saws and first aid kits.

There are three major items to consider when planning your winter and spring tree work.

First, fruit trees will benefit from pruning to enhance fruit production. Second, pruning ornamental trees is completely different than pruning fruit trees.

Third, if hiring someone to do the work, choose a reputable tree service or a professional arborist. Unfortunately, there are plenty of well-meaning folks who do not use proper pruning techniques.

Fruit Trees

February through April is the traditional time for pruning fruit trees. If they have been pruned on a regular basis, they have developed numerous water sprouts. As a general rule, one-third or more can be thinned out. Most of the remaining sprouts should be shortened to 4 to 10 inches.

This treatment will concentrate most of a tree’s energy into producing fruit on fewer branches rather than dispersing it throughout numerous untrimmed sprouts. However, if all the sprouts are removed, a tree will bear little or no fruit.

Treat Ornamental

Trees Gently

Ideally, ornamentals like cherries, flowering plums and others should be carefully thinned. Avoid severe topping or aggressive pruning. Not only is it ugly, but it stimulates sprouting. Most trees respond to heavy topping by sending up fast growing water sprouts to replenish the food manufacturing twigs and leaves that have been removed.

These sprouts can grow up to 5 feet or more a year. Often, a heavily topped tree will reach its original height in just two to three years. But there will be many more branches to deal with than before that can cause maintenance nightmares. In addition, large cut surfaces often serve as entry points for decay organisms.

Topping Should be Banned

Responsible tree services and certified arborists will discourage tree topping of ornamental trees. Already there are examples of tree butchery along streets and in parking lots. It detracts from the nearby businesses and increases tree maintenance costs.

The key to successful ornamental pruning is to have the final result look as if very little has been done to a tree or shrub. Careful thinning can retain a tree’s natural beauty and shape.

For homeowners, there are at least two options if a tree is too wide or tall for its space:

• Carefully select some of the longer, unsightly branches. Cut them back to where they join a larger branch or the main trunk or lightly trim them back to a shorter length.

• Remove the tree and plant one that will grow to fill, not overcrowd, a chosen space. This is much preferable to doing a severe pruning job. Note that tree heights listed on nursery labels are often conservative.

Do the Right Thing

If hiring the work done, ask questions about a pruner’s experience and techniques. Request a list of references. If you feel uncomfortable, hire someone else.

I insist that a homeowner be present during a job if possible. That way he or she can immediately approve of the work in progress or express concerns and be available to ask or answer questions I often have.

Before starting to work on an ornamental tree, I ask a homeowner what he or she wants a tree to look like. Sometimes I have to explain why their request may not be practical or healthy and we will discuss some options. This should be the approach by any knowledgeable and responsible tree pruner.

Frequently a homeowner will tell me to “do what I think needs to be done.” This can be a dangerous instruction to give to a stranger because he or she may not know the correct way to treat ornamental trees. The results may be painful to look at. And it might be even more painful to write a check.

Doing the right thing will result in happy trees, a happy homeowner and enhance the reputations of responsible tree services and arborists. A poor job is very noticeable and neighbors and passersby will wonder what the heck a homeowner or a business is trying to do to its trees.

Dennis Tompkins, a Bonney Lake resident, is a certified arborist and certified tree risk assessor. He provides small tree pruning, pest diagnosis, hazard tree evaluations, tree appraisals and other services for homeowners. Contact him at 253-863-7469 or e-mail at Website:

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