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First Do No Harm — Fall 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Trim trees without causing damage

By Carol Davis
Illustration by Tom Milner

Tree-trimming is necessary for many reasons — tree health, aesthetics, or to keep branches from blocking a pathway or damaging a building — but it's vital to your trees' health that you minimize the size and number of pruning cuts.

That means taking special care to prune properly and carefully, says Rip Tompkins, a certified arborist with ArborMaster Inc., a Connecticut firm that specializes in safety and productivity training and partners with Husqvarna, a leader in outdoor power equipment, to educate people about proper tree care and safety.

"Less is better. Often cutting less in a tree is better," Tompkins says. "We used to think that to clean a tree out was the thing to do; to go in and clean out all the interior growth. That is not always a good thing to do.

"You don't want to take out a lot of live material unless you have to," he says. "You want to keep the tree healthy, and if you take out too much live material, it will often stress a tree."

Another outdated approach is making flush cuts, in which you saw off a branch very close, almost parallel, to the trunk. This method takes protective bark off the trunk, exposing underlying wood to rot fungi, which could invade and rot the tree.

Poorly trimmed trees are evident by the cavities on their main stem, where a branch once protruded, Tompkins says. Pruning flush with the stem wounded the tree, causing damage that is easy to see.

"If you correctly prune a limb, you're not wounding the tree; you're just removing a limb," he says.

Properly prune by first identifying the limb's branch collar, which is the area where the branch connects either to its parent branch or the trunk. The branch collar is a slight bulge at the base of the branch formed by overlapping layers of branch and stem tissues.

The branch collar is part of the stem — not the branch — and must not be removed during pruning. Take a closer look, and you'll see that a branch dies only up to the living branch collar, and not further into the stem.

"On some trees, the branch collar is more obvious than on others," Tompkins says.

Make the initial cut far from the branch collar to get rid of the weight of the limb so it won't tear the parent branch or trunk, he advises.

Then, you'll want to make the pruning cut just outside the branch collar. "That will then allow the tree to produce woundwood to seal over the wound," Tompkins says, referring to the tissue that slowly forms around the stub from the pruned branch.

Leaving too much branch, or stubs, also can harm the tree because woundwood won't form around dead wood, which could allow rot and infection to develop so virulently that it breaks through the branch collar's protective zone.

A properly pruned branch will seal quite nicely, and without applying paint or tar to the wound — another outdated pruning method — Tompkins says.

It's been proven that using paint or other dressings to cover cuts was detrimental to the tree, Tompkins says. "Wound dressings such as tar or paint can interfere with the natural process of woundwood."

By taking the time to properly — and safely — prune your trees, you'll be rewarded with a strong, healthy, and beautiful backdrop to your property.

Out Here editor Carol Davis has 5 acres of trees and loves each one.