2009-11-05 / Features

Pruning Trees This Fall? Avoid Shortcuts

By Bob Karlovits

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Dealing with trees in the fall means more than simply raking.

When its limbs and canopy are bereft of leaves, it can be a good time to judge a tree for pruning.

But many tree experts say clients or would-be customers often look at trimming as nothing more than a way to make fall leaf cleanup easier. Proper tree care is more than a simple shortcut, they say.

“It is not a question of when, but how,’’ says Mike Seefeld, owner of Mike’s Tree Service in New Kensington, about 15 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

“Most times, it is best to wait until the leaves are all on or all off,’’ says Philip Snow from Best 4 Less Tree Service in Pittsburgh. “The transitional time is when the trees are the most vulnerable.’’

That means doing the raking first and then taking care of the tree.

Snow and others say waiting until the leaves are gone provides a good way of seeing the skeleton of a tree and determining good branches versus bad.

That makes fall a great time for pruning.

Matthew Erb from Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest says the lack of leaves allows a worker “to see the whole structure of the tree.’’

Health is the object of tree care, not elimination of leaf pickup, Snow says.

Randy Nelson agrees, but has a warning.

“Pruning is a vague word,’’ says Nelson, from Nelson Tree Co. in North Huntingdon, about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. “When a person wants a pruning, I always ask them what they want the tree to look like and what they want to accomplish.’’

Pruning is not simply shortening or thinning out a tree, they say.

The Tree Care Industry Association, based in Londonderry, N.H., says “proper pruning is an art based on scientific principles of plant physiology. At its most basic level, pruning trees involves removing damaged, dead or structurally weak limbs, which will improve a tree’s health and reduce the chances of personal or property damage caused by falling limbs.’’

Pruning often is beneficial to grass and plants because it can open sunlight though the canopy.

Mark J. Kinsella of Professional Tree Service in Ingomar, about 10 miles north of Pittsburgh, says “uplifting’’ – where workers thin out the middle of a tree “so you can look up through it’’ – often is a large aspect of the job.

He suggests fall is the best time to do that because the branches are open and it is possible to get the best look at the tree.

Chris Klimas, mid-Atlantic operations manager for Davey Tree, says fall pruning allows arborists to get the best idea of the natural spread of branches because they are not being held down by the weight of the leaves. Leaf weight is more substantial than it sounds, he adds.

He and other tree experts say tree jobs are quite individual, determined by height, placement, difficulty and amount of wood removal, time spent and number of workers needed.

Klimas says projects are determined by time studies and a full-day job by a three-man crew could run from $1,600 to $2,000.

He says it is important to have jobs evaluated by members of the International Society of Arboriculture.

Regardless of the time of year, the quality of the work matters a great deal, the tree craftsmen say. Nelson warns against making any kind of severe cut in the summer. The Tree Care Industry Association emphasizes the importance of “collar cuts,’’ which are made just outside the swollen area at the union of a branch and stem.

The collar protects the tree from disease and helps generate new tissue around the cut.

The group warns about stub cuts, which are made far above the collar, or flush cuts right up against the trunk or branch.

The work not only is a matter of technique, but it also involves types of tree.

While maples can be trimmed in the spring, it opens them up for uncontrolled sap running.

Don Keefe – whose tree service in Mount Pleasant, about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, bears his name – agrees with professionals who advocate working with maples only in the fall, but he says spring can work, even if some results are oddly dramatic.

He talks about working his father’s maples once in warm weather, and days later it turned cold. The tree then bore “sapsickles’’ – dripping sap that froze into icicles – but it didn’t cause any lasting damage.

“You can tell them what the experts say and then tell them about your own experiences, and they can judge,’’ he says about advising clients when to prune.

Experts warn about how cuts in the spring can open a tree to infection from insects or bacteria. Nelson says a fall cut will grow over before that danger period.

Seefeld, Kinsella and Steve Horhut, from Horhut Tree Service in Baldwin, just east of Mount Lebanon, all talk about how it is necessary to work with elms and oaks in the fall to avoid Dutch elm disease and oak wilt. Both of those are caused by bacteria and insects that get into the trees easily if they are cut in the spring growing season.

“A red oak can die in a year,’’ Seefeld says of the danger of oak wilt.

Klimas says Pittsburgh once was prone to Dutch elm disease but says education seems to have reduced that problem.

Erb, director of urban forestry from the nonprofit tree protection group, says the sycamore, another prominent tree in this area, also is prone to a fungal disease that can strike after spring pruning. The fall dormant season is much better for it, he adds.

Horhut and Nelson, however, warn that fall pruning can be bad for flowering trees such as magnolia, flowering crab apple and dogwood, Their buds begin to emerge after the flowering in the spring. If they are pruned in the fall, many buds will be lost, reducing the next bloom.

“It should restore the following year, but the best time to prune them is before budding begins,’’ Horhut says.

Taking down the top of a tree to eliminate danger could create more, says Klimas of Davey Tree.

Topping “leads to decay, rot and disease,’’ he says. Other tree experts express similar disapproval.

“It is slow death for a tree,’’ says Kinsella of Professional Tree Service.

Seefeld from Mike’s Tree Service agrees, calling topping the “single worst thing you can do for a tree.’’

Topping a tree is a simple, and rather brutal, method of cutting a tree down to size. The person pruning basically takes off the top of a tree with no regard to the quality of the limbs.

Klimas explains that trees are not prepared to handle such a traumatic action. As a result, root systems that have been growing to supply the full tree now are reduced in work and can go dormant. Limbs can be hurt as a result.

Those limbs, or the whole tree, can then become weaker and prone to falling.

“Tree-topping is done most often because owners get worried about the tree being blown over,’’ he says, “In doing this, they may in fact be increasing that danger.’’

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