Before you prune your trees, read this

The Virginia Pilot, JAN 15, 2018 AT 10:00 AM

That most landscape trees must be pruned regularly is a persistent myth, one that results in poorly shaped new growth or even eventual death of the tree. “The biggest reason I’m called in to take out a hazardous tree is from over-pruning years ago,” said certified arborist Brendon Phillips. (photo by AnnaLisa Michalski)

It’s January and your trees are bare of leaves. Is the time right to prune?

There’s more to consider than timing, said certified arborist Brendon Phillips of Phillips Family Tree Care in Western Branch. The chief factor: Is pruning necessary at all?

“You don’t prune trees just to prune them. They have thousands of years of practice and do fine on their own,” Phillips said.

Topping – cutting off all of a tree’s upper branches or even the upper portion of the main trunk – is a common example of over-pruning.

“It’s a terrible practice. If the tree doesn’t die, the stuff that grows back is only half as strong (as what was removed),” Phillips said. “The biggest reason I’m called in to take out a hazardous tree is from over-pruning years ago.”

Young trees may benefit most from corrective pruning, Phillips said. While a tree is still small, smart pruning can eliminate structural defects such as a double trunk, a condition known among experts as codominant stem.

In a mature tree, by contrast, pruning actually presents a new risk to health. Phillips said that same codominant stem in, for example, a large decades-old oak, would be better addressed with cabling or threaded rods. In both these methods, a properly installed support device stabilizes the tree, without cutting it in a way that leaves it vulnerable to further damage.

There are only a few reasons to prune a mature tree, Phillips said, such as removal of a damaged or diseased limb. Eliminating limbs that present a danger to life or property – for example, a branch that overhangs a roof or fence or restricts a homeowner’s ability to mow the yard – is good cause, too, but that can be a tricky call to make.

“When trees start to get big, people may think they’re a threat to their home even when they’re not,” Phillips said. If you’re unsure, he said, it’s best to have a professional make the assessment “to give you peace of mind.”

Though “certified arborist” is an indication of expertise, Phillips said there’s no single governing body that oversees and standardizes tree care as a profession. So he offers two main tips for identifying a quality tree team, with or without that title:

1) Note the equipment they use. A pro wears protective equipment including a helmet and chaps. “They care more. They care about their own safety, and they care about the health of the tree,” Phillips said.

Some other equipment should be regarded as a red flag, Phillips said. A ladder is never safe in pruning, he said. And if you see workers wearing climb spikes – traction spurs on the back of their boots – don’t hire, Phillips said. Spikes leave damage roughly equal to “taking somebody and poking a bunch of needle holes in them just to cut their hair.”

2) Ask lots of questions. “How do you make a proper pruning cut? How do you feel about topping trees? What should I take out of this tree? Should I take anything out of this tree?” Phillips said.

People may be surprised to hear “Leave it alone” during an estimate, Phillips said, but for the health of the tree, that may in fact be the best advice. Doing your research about the tree in question, then getting to know your prospective service well is a smart strategy.

“I don’t get offended at all when people ask me questions,” he said. “They’ve made the step to educate themselves to protect their trees.”