Healing powers of pruning

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Every year, I receive questions through my website about pruning/reparing winter damaged trees. The questions are arriving earlier this year due to the extreme weather we have experienced across Canada.

Pruning tools

As the snow and ice disappear, many thoughts will run through the heads of real estate owners, especially those with mature trees on their property. Will I clean up the mess myself or call in a professional? What do I do with damaged trees and shrubs that do not require removal? How do I prune them to greatest effect for the long-term health and appearance of the tree/shrub?

This is a story for the ‘do-it-yourselfer.’ Pruning 101.

What tools do I need?

Hand pruners. These are for light work. Use hand pruners for shaping existing tree branches and for reaching into young, woody growth to remove one- to three-year-old growth that has bent over and broken under the weight of the ice. Good quality hand pruners run between $25 and $80. 

Pruning saw. Forget the cross-cut and the rip saw in the basement, a pruning saw is designed for the unique purpose of cutting through green, living wood. It has teeth that are arranged alternately so that you get a ‘purchase’ on the wood on the fore stroke and the backstroke. This way you use less energy when cutting branches and limbs. A hand-held pruning saw will cut wood up about 10 cm [4 inches] in diameter, sometimes larger, depending on the wood. A soft wood like linden, up to 15 cm or 6 inches in diameter, for example, can be pruned nicely with a pruning saw.

The secret to a truly effective cut [and with the least amount of effort] is a sharp saw. If you have an old one, either sharpen it, replace the blade or buy a new one. A good pruning saw should not cost you more than $25. 

Loppers. Both anvil and by-pass type loppers can be very effective at cutting green wood up to 8 cm or 3 inches in diameter. These generally require less effort and work more quickly than a pruning saw [especially the ratcheting type], but if you cut a branch that is too big for the tool, the cutting blades will twist. The permanent damage can be frustrating to deal with.

Pole Pruner. A good quality pole pruner can pay for itself many times over if you know how to use it and especially if having one on hand saves you from calling in a professional. There are a couple of caveats, however. First, the pruning saw on the end of your pole pruner has its limitations [as, I've learned, all of these tools do]. Do not attempt to cut a tree limb that is more than, say, 10 cm or 4 inches in diameter. 

Second, safety. You really don’t want a tree limb to fall on your head. Wear a safety helmet [like that is going to happen] or take small sections off the limb at a time, starting with sections that are the greatest distance from the main trunk of the tree. 

Do not stand on a ladder with the pole pruner extended.

Work with a buddy who can assist you, guide you to branches that may not be visible to you from your vantage point, and who can laugh at you while you try your best to get it right.

What to cut? 

Branches that have broken will need to be removed. Ideally, you should cut minor branches back to where they meet a major branch or the main trunk of the tree.  Make a cut about 1/3 through the bottom of the branch first and then cut it through from the top.  This way you will avoid stripping bark off the trunk of your tree under the weight of a falling branch. 

Branches that have splintered under the weight of the ice will also have to be removed.

Branches that are bent down, but not broken, perhaps with the top of the stem facing the ground, like it is saying a prayer, can be staked into an upright position come spring.  For now just leave them alone.  As the sap rises in permanent trees and shrubs come April, many will find their way into a natural, upright position. 

Finally, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of caution. Do not over extend yourself or the capabilities of your tools. 

If you harbour doubt with regards to your ability to prune damaged trees and shrubs, either seek help from someone more experienced or call in an arborist for a consult.  There is a reason why a certified arborist has extensive education and training: they learn how to maximize the life of a tree, in spite of the damage that may have occurred to it.  There is a lot of value in what they do and they deserve every cent that they earn.

Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40.  He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.


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