No giant hat racks: when to prune

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 07:56 PM

Winter is the preferred season for pruning large shade trees, assuming of course they need to be pruned (which is rarely). February is an ideal time, but to spread out the workload tree companies do this work as early as November, and that’s just fine.

This raises the question of how to determine when a large shade tree needs pruned. If you think my answer will be “when it gets too big,” then you’re barking up the wrong trunk.

Consider this: If you’ve ever visited the Warren County Extension Center, you’ve no doubt seen numerous towering pine trees in the front yard. Yes, during an extreme weather event (e.g. tornado or hurricane force winds) I would prefer to be elsewhere, or at least in the basement.

For me, however, it’s a reasonable trade-off. The trees are majestic and healthy. They are growing in good soil and have strong straight trunks. Even after the very windy days at the end of last month, there were only a few small limbs on the ground. And in my view the low risk of a devastating wind event is tolerable.

Yes, large shade trees within striking distance of buildings present a risk and they need to be inspected periodically. Dead and damaged limbs need to be removed. Where limbs rub against siding or shingle, the offenders need to be trimmed. Trunks should be tested for soundness and unusual outgrowths (e.g. mushrooms) should be examined by a professional.

It’s also critical to avoid soil-disturbing activities within several feet of the trunk (fifty is a good starting point). That includes trenching, grading, excavation and heavy equipment traffic, any of which could cause traumatic damage to the root system.

There are certainly occasions where trees are too close to homes, and this is problematic for several reasons. First, there is the previously mentioned potential for damage to walls and roofs. Second, there is the possibility of foundation damage, depending on tree species and distance. Third, the limbs may threaten electrical, phone and data cables.

In those situations, where careful and selective trimming is insufficient, I recommend moving the house. Or you could simply cut down the tree. The latter may be more economical, but call around for prices.

What is most decidedly not recommended is turning your tree into a giant hat rack (a.k.a. topping). Aside from the fact that there have been very few hat-wearing giants seen in these parts, this practice actually increases the risk of limb breakage from wind and ice. And for all I know, it may attract more hat-wearing giants. (I went too far, didn’t I?)

Now that I’ve said all this and discouraged you from aggressive pruning of shade trees, you’ll notice the crews coming down the street trimming trees next to powerlines. Terms like “butchered” and “disfigured” may come to mind.

I would point out, however, that this pruning is a necessary evil, performed by highly skilled crews who are following very specific guidelines. Personally, I hope for the day when we all have roof-mounted solar panels, and debates about uranium-mining, mountain-top removal, and Main Street crepe myrtle pruning are much less frequent (perhaps I should also mention that I wore tie-dyed T-shirts in college).

In the meantime, I’ll repeat the mantra of “right plant, right place”, and remind you that a tree removed is an opportunity to start the cycle anew.