South Carolina Urban and Community Forestry Council
Summer 2009 Acorn Newsletter
Carroll Williamson, City of Columbia
I was speaking with an experienced municipal arborist one day and asked him if his city had a young tree pruning program. He replied, “Of course” and then he elaborated with this analogy. “Would you wait until your child was a teenager to teach him right from wrong? Of course not, and I apply the same thinking to young tree pruning.” With that unequivocal guidance in hand, I proceeded to develop a tree pruning program for the city of Columbia.
First, I turned to Ed Gilman’s An Illustrated Guide to Pruning, and as I anticipated, he provided clear instructions on young tree pruning as well as how to develop a long-term pruning cycle (appendix 6). This all sounded great, but now I had to come up with a plan for the city of Columbia. Fortunately, the reforestation technician before me had kept a record of all the trees planted during the 2004-2005 planting season. Armed with that information, I set out to mold the young trees on this list to grow into outstanding, healthy contributors to the city and to their community for many decades to come.
Gradually, I broke my pruning procedure down to four steps so I could give other employees clear, simple instructions on the proper techniques. These instructions only apply to shade tree species (oaks, tulip poplar, maples, elms) because they are the trees that have the potential to cause the worst damage as they reach a mature size (60 to 120 feet). Therefore, it is critical that you correctly identify the tree species prior to pruning the tree. (Understory species like cherries and dogwoods do not fall into this category. Please refer to Gilman’s book for guidance on pruning these species.)
First, I observe the tree I am about to prune in order to determine what lower branches to remove. Gilman recommends keeping two-thirds of the tree’s height as canopy, so I start by removing all lower branches that fall in the lower one-third. If the remaining branches would still obstruct a pedestrian on a sidewalk, I prune those as well.
Second, and most importantly, I select the central leader and subordinate or remove all competing leaders. The decision to subordinate or remove depends on the size of the competing leaders. The larger the stem, the more likely it is that I will subordinate it during this pruning. Then, in a couple of years, when the central leader has become apically dominant, I will return to the tree to remove the remaining subordinate stem.
Third, I follow Gilman’s recommendation (page 188) to select the lateral branches that are growing close together and remove some of them in order to create a system of spiraled, scaffold branches well-spaced apart. Any time multiple branches are growing close together on the trunk at this young age, at least one should be removed because of the stress on that part of the trunk will increase as the branches’ diameters increase in size.
Finally, of the remaining lower branches in the upper two-thirds of the tree, I reduce by approximately 1-2 feet as many as I can reach from the ground with the pole pruner, pruning back to a lateral branch. This technique slows the growth of lower branches that will eventually be removed in the next twenty years. This step accomplishes two things. First, it prevents lower branches from competing with the central leader. Second, when the branches are eventually removed later in the pruning cycle, the cuts will not be so large that the tree will have to expend a lot of its energy compartmentalizing the pruning wound. (Gilman, page 192)
After two years of young tree pruning, the city of Columbia has a pruning cycle established and about 1,000 trees pruned like I described above. I spent the first year honing my own technique, but since then have trained another employee whom I can send out on his own to mold these young trees properly as well.
Spending approximately 15 minutes pruning each of these young trees now will save thousands of dollars in tree maintenance for the city in the long run. Though it may be hard to justify to your employer shifting your limited labor resources to a new endeavor, an argument in terms of long-term cost savings should help convince your boss to make this important investment in your city’s trees.