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The Kindest Cut | Winter 2005 Out Here Magazine

Take care in pruning your trees, bushes

By Stephen Leon Alligood

Most property owners face the question of pruning at one point or another. Maybe it's a shrub that could use a trim; a tree that needs deadwood removed; or vegetation that needs reshaping.

But some landowners are prone to prune the wrong way, says Rex Bastian, vice president of The Care of Trees, a professional arboricultural firm based in Wheeling, Ill.

"Bad cuts and improperly timed cuts can cause more damage than good," says Bastian, whose firm has more than 450 arborists and support staff in more than 25 offices across the country.

"Pruning is an important part of keeping a plant healthy but it's got to be done at the right time and in the right way," he says.

So when is the best time to prune? Well, Bastian says, there isn't a pat answer.

For instance, many varieties of deciduous trees should be pruned in the cold months, when the tree is dormant. With the tree empty of leaves, its structure is more readily apparent and trimming can be more precise.

But with flowering shrubs, property owners need to know their plants. Does the shrub bloom on the same growth year after year, in which case care should be exercised in trimming? Or does it produce new growth annually, meaning the old growth can be sheared away after blooming has ended?

"All things being equal, however, if a plant is healthy, you can work on it, within reason, just about any time of the year," Bastian says.

"A homeowner just needs to remember what you're doing to a plant if you cut out a growing part of it. With foliage removed it's similar to being placed on a diet," Bastian says. "When we cut green wood we are taking away from the plant's total capability to produce food, so we need to have a good reason."

"A tree or a bush doesn't know anyone's looking at it. It thinks it's out there in the woods by itself and not in our yards," he says. "It's going to grow the way nature tells it to grow."

In this puzzle of "to prune or not to prune," the expert says landowners must answer a very important question even before the first cut is made: Can I do this job safely?

Thirty feet doesn't sound tall until you're standing high on a limb intending to cut deadwood out of a tree.

"Thirty feet can kill you. So can 20, or 10. If it's higher than a stepladder, most homeowners should consider bringing in a professional," Bastian advises.

"Sometimes the most expensive last words are, 'I can do this myself,' so the first thing a person has to do is to separate what a homeowner can do versus a professional."

Stephen Leon Alligood lives and writes in Middle Tennessee.