People should enjoy your garden, not be assaulted by it.
Has this ever happened to you?
You are happily walking or jogging along, fiddling with your iPod, considering animal shapes in cloud formations or surreptitiously checking out someone’s garden through the fence and all of a sudden…SMACK…a low hanging tree branch gives you a slap in the face!
Everyone I talk to about pruning say they don’t prune because they are afraid of doing something wrong. Or in the case of trees, they think given enough time the too low limb will eventually grow upward as the tree grows taller. This is not the case in most trees. Trees put new growth and height from the top, so it keeps producing new branches from the tree tops and those low branches will stay there and get bigger and longer. Those low branches need to be pruned off, or ‘limbed up’ as we say, and while it’s not rocket science there are some things to keep in mind when pruning tree limbs.
First are the pruning tools. The 3 I use most are pictured here. From the left…Felco bypass pruners (secateurs), loppers, and finally a garden saw.
Pruners are either bypass or anvil type. I prefer bypass, which means the blade actually cuts the limb cleanly as it passes. You will need to keep them sharpened for best cuts and less bodily strain to you. Anvil types just crush the limb till it breaks. Anvil styles are more stressful on the hands and wrist and don’t make a clean cut whereby allowing bugs or disease to enter the rough cut. Most hand pruners are for stems less than 1” ( 2.5 cm) in diameter. The packaging will indicate diameter limits when you buy them.
Loppers are for stems 1” diameter or larger, needing more leverage. Or if you are like me for stems as big as you can muscle through before the vein on your forehead bulges like a rope…then you know it’s time to give it up and stop being lazy, head to the garage and get the saw.
Obviously the saw is for the big ‘uns. And this ain’t no ordinary saw that might be in the wood shop or miter box. Nope, this is your very own special gardener’s saw that has thick, wider spaced, bucked teeth that look like they are badly in need of orthodontics. They cut through a limb like butter. Or should…if it doesn’t, treat yourself to a new one.
When it comes to buying tools, you get what you pay for. And if you skimp on quality in search of price chances are you’ll pay for it in aches and pains later. I went through too many cheaper pruners before I succumbed to buying a Felco. Not only do they have different sizes for your small or large hands, but they have a left handed style too. They sell parts, so you can FIX it rather than try to figure out how to make it into yard art after it breaks. By now I could probably have paid for 3 pair of Felco pruners for all those others that froze up or had parts that broke which I threw away because rusty tool yard art isn’t my thing. And only Sears Craftsman loppers will do, because they still have a free replacement policy for ANY Craftsman tool that breaks, guaranteed, no receipt needed, no statute of limitations, no sniveling, no sour looks. Lastly a folding saw like mine is easy to store and safely carry around in your back pocket, but be sure to get one that has a locking mechanism so the blade locks in open position so it can’t accidentally fold back onto your fingers while you’re sawing that branch. Believe me, it happens.
Now where to cut. Yes there is a sweet spot.
But this isn’t it.
Cutting only half the branch (hard to see but there are 3 in this pix) not only looks like a job undone, it leaves that remainder vulnerable to freezing, die back, breaking and bug or disease damage that can cause further problems. Plus you avoid the whole “you could poke somebody’s eye out with that thing” liability.
When we’re talking about tree branches, the sweet spot is a ring at the base of the branch where it comes out of the main trunk. The bark will look like a collar. You want to cut up to that collar (where my finger is) but not into it. Nor do you want to leave a long peg.
Remember the saying “leave a stub but not enough to hang a hat on”. Resist the temptation to cut it flush with the trunk thinking it will look better. That’s my usual problem, but I keep reminding myself it’s not about me (drat again), it’s about a healthy cut and speedy healing for the tree. There are cells in that collar that will grow and cover the edges of the cut, stopping bugs and disease from entering under the bark and causing damage to the tree.
And as importantly, don’t try to cut the whole branch off with this one cut. The weight of the 6 foot limb with leaves attached will pull down and tear off the bark you are trying to save. Cut most of the branch off first in shorter sections, working your way toward the trunk. When you are about a foot (30 cm) or so less from the trunk, then make your cut close to the collar. If you make a small cut under the branch first, then move to make the full cut from the top, you’ll again end the possibility of tearing into good bark should the limb begin to fall before you’re done.
The finished natural growth repair will look like a doughnut.
Here’s a healthy doughnut...no doubt the only doughnut that can be called healthy. Make your cut as smooth as possible, with sharp pruners, loppers or a saw. Never use a ‘tree salve’ of any kind to paint over pruning cuts. They are not helpful, necessary or needed. They are old school and can actually cause damage. Trees were designed to heal themselves.
Lastly is timing. Spring pruning stimulates growth so your perfectly pruned specimen will fill out, heal quicker and cover your cuts sooner. Many deciduous trees can be pruned when they are either in full leaf (summer) or dormant (late winter, no leaves). Fall is risky for this kind of pruning so wait, unless people are sustaining too much injury from your blasted low branches. That requires emergency efforts. Depending on which side of the equator you live and what you are pruning, timing will be different so best to consult with your local nursery. Don’t leave it up to your lawn trimming service if you use one. It’s a bit more complicated than the skills needed to cut grass and blow the debris all over your freshly washed car.
Most plants are very forgiving, but if you’re working on a prima donna and it rewards your efforts with death, just look at it as another opportunity to go nursery shopping! Remember, mangled lemons make lemonade.
This is your goal. The walkways that border your garden should be unobstructed to passersby.
No doubt they’ll be so enthralled with the splendor of your garden that they would walk right into a low hanging branch…uh…or gate left open.
In Bloom In My Garden Today: Gladiolus callianthus Abyssinian Glad, Cyclamen hederifolium, Gaura, blue fall crocus speciosus, Fushia, Alyssum, Nepeta, Russian sage, rose, Eupatorium ‘Chocolate (Joe Pye Weed), Schizostylus, Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Veronica, Salvia, hardy geranium ‘Mavis Simpson’, Lavender, kirengeshoma palmate, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’