Category Archives: Pruning

Why Topping Your Trees Is Harmful

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This is what your tree should never look like. This is the result of the abysmal practice of topping. Other names for topping include: heading, tipping, hat-racking, and rounding over. Besides the ugliness of the topped tree and the cost of having someone come do it every year, there are other reasons to not ever do this to your tree.

The International Society of Arboriculture states: “Topping is perhaps the most harmful tree pruning practice known. Yet, despite more than 25 years of literature and
seminars explaining its harmful effects, topping remains a common practice.”


There are several things that topping your tree does to harm your tree:

Stresses the tree – Making large cuts can remove more than 50% of the leaf bearing crown of the tree. In an effort to recover, the tree produces rapid growth of new leaves. As a result you leave a weak tree with large pruning cuts which provides a perfect situation for diseases and pests to attack the tree.

Decay – Correct pruning of a tree allows the tree to compartmentalize the wound and close it. Topping leaves no way to close the wound created by leaving no branches nearby to carry resources to the point of the cut.

Weak Limbs – Due to the stressful production of new branches after topping, the newly formed branches are much weaker than a properly formed branch. This increases the risk of breakage through windy conditions.

While topping is still commonly practiced, it is not necessary. If you need clearance from utility lines you can prune in a responsible way to satisfy clearance and still provide a way for the tree to heal itself. Proper planning of tree species and placement will help you to avoid these problems in the first place.

Fruitless Mulberry trees have a lifespan of 50 years, but generally only live for up to 25 years due to topping. Topping is much easier than properly pruning a large tree and provides yearly income for those performing it, but properly pruning your tree will result in a healthy tree for much longer.

Fundamentals of Bonsai – Pruning

There are hundreds of questions on bonsai forums, at clubs, and across the globe about pruning. What to prune, when to prune, why we prune, which species can I prune now, how often do I prune, etc. I want to help clarify these questions.

 

I’ll start with explaining why we prune. There are 3 main reasons to prune:
  • Cleaning
  • Controlling Growth
  • Improving Structure
     We clean to improve airflow and allow sunlight to penetrate into the interior and lower branches. This is also a precursory action to wiring and styling the tree. Trying to wire a tree without cleaning it first can be miserable, especially when doing it on a needle juniper.  Cleaning consists pruning off weak interior growth with little to no ramification and  clearing any foliage in the crotches between the trunks and branches. This includes leggy branches that are not developing in the desired direction.
     Pruning is the way we control growth on our trees. This is how we tell the tree to direct more resources towards a specific branch or section of the tree. This helps to keep your branches a specific length or thickness and give them directional movement to draw interest. This is also the technique we use to gain width in certain branches and keep others from thickening too much. I will go into more detail later on how to do that.
Structural pruning is the way we improve taper, inverse swelling (taper), direct the line of the trunk and branching, and remove flawed or unnecessary branches. Being able to prune effectively is the foundation of successful bonsai practice and design.

 

Before we go pruning anything we need to step back and observe a few things about the tree we’re about to prune. We need to identify:
  1. What species is the tree?
  2. What is the tree’s current health?
  3. Did you repot the tree within the last few months?
  4. Why am I pruning?
  5. Is the ______(tree, branch, etc.) that I’m about to prune in refinement or development?
  6. What season are we in?
  7. What is the effect on the tree’s energy and health if we prune now?
1. Some species hold significant amounts of energy in certain parts of the tree. Junipers hold significant energy in the foliage. When someone interested in bonsai buys a juniper and then prunes a lot of the foliage off they frequently die, this is why. Pines hold their energy in the roots. Deciduous trees hold theirs throughout the tree. Other species have certain timing for an additional flush of growth (Japanese Black Pine) or timing to prune for flowers.
2. If the tree is not healthy, don’t do any work on it unless it involves solving the health issue.
3. If you recently repotted the tree you should avoid pruning so that the foliage mass can help restore the root system that you worked on.
4. The purpose of pruning can include any of the aforementioned reasons – improving structure, controlling and directing growth, or cleaning.
5. We need to understand the stages of bonsai. If you’re not sure what stage your tree is in do some research before.
6. What season we are in can be a great factor in determining if we can prune without damaging the health of our trees. With most coniferous, deciduous, and broadleaf evergreen species the seasons function in the same way. Winter is a period where the tree doesn’t metabolize freely and we often refer to it as dormancy. Spring is a period of heavy growth. There are several periods of using the trees resources to produce more growth, then gaining those resources back through photosynthesis. In Summer some trees can go into a Summer dormancy if the temperatures get above 90° regularly. If you are in a more mild climate your trees may not slow down growth completely. Fall is a time where the trees save energy and focus on thickening branches and roots to help with Winter hardiness.
7. An example of a bad time to prune would be in Spring right after your tree has pushed out a ton of new leaves. If you prune the branches off before the leaves have been able to form a cuticle (finish growing) and reaccumulate energy, then you’re weakening the tree by taking away its ability to gain energy back.
A generally safe bet is the prune in early Spring before buds pop open or additional candles / needles start growing.
I’d like to also state that you can operate outside of these general guidelines, and depending on how you care for your tree afterwards, you can prune at almost any time. However, I would not recommend pruning whenever you please without extensive knowledge and experience.

How To Prune Fruit Trees

Some people choose not to prune their fruit trees. If you do choose to do so the main benefit is easier harvesting. There are two main things to address when pruning fruit trees: pruning for structure, and pruning to remove potential problems.

Structural pruning in fruit trees leads to 3 generally accepted systems: Central Leader, Open Center, and Modified Leader. I recommend using both the central leader and open center layouts for almost all fruit. Occasionally the modified leader can be necessary for very heavily branched fruit trees. I’ll focus on the Central Leader and Open Center methods.

Central Leader: This method allows for a strong central trunk and branches that grow horizontally off the trunk. This is great for apples and pears as they have heavy fruit.

Things to look for when pruning: Not having two branches near each other on the same side of the trunk. You’d ideally want a branch on the right, left, then back/front as you progress up the tree. This allows for balance of the tree.

Open Center: This is also known as the vase method. No central trunk is formed here. Instead you have several large branches the shoot out away from the center which allows for and airy center with plenty of space for sunlight to penetrate. This is recommended for: quinces, crabapples, plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, and apricots.

Things to look for when pruning: Making sure there is an even distribution so that the tree isn’t too heavy on one side. Keep any vertical growing branches short as they are very vigorous.

Dead and Diseased: The next major reason to prune is to remove dead, diseased, suckers, weak, or overly strong branches. Below I have a series of photos with branches that are either crossing, rubbing each other, growing towards the center, or diseased. Other branches that are growing directly vertical (also known as ‘water sprouts’) or with a very acute angle from the branch it emerges from (less than 45°) need to be removed as well.

If you choose not to prune your fruit trees regularly, dead and diseased branches should still be removed immediately. Suckers as well should be removed from the graft union at the bottom of the tree.

If you have more questions about pruning fruit trees leave a comment below and I’d love to help coach you through the pruning process.

Crape Myrtle #1 Repot

This crape myrtle has been in the ground for about a year and a half. I was hoping to thicken the trunk below the junction of the two main trunks. I got several “suckers” below it, so I’m hoping to see a significant thickening there.

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When working through the roots I make sure to frequently wet the roots. This is to counter the sun and light wind that is happening while I’m performing this repot. I definitely don’t want the roots to dry out and damage the tree.
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I found a significant amount of roots above where I remember the base being, so I continue to chopstick down until I can see the flaring of the original base.
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I had to clean my space every now and then to clear out unwanted roots and dirt.
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I finally reached a section where two main roots were emerging from the trunk.
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On the other side there was another.
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I had two larger roots above this point, but both will have to go.
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I cut back all of the sucker trunks and then cleaned it up to give you a better view of the trunk.
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As I flip the tree over to work on the roots, take note on how I hold the tree to avoid damage to the branches.
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I know nothing will hit the branches where I’m holding it, so I can work freely with the roots.

I noticed a huge group of medium sized roots here. This will be what is limiting the height of the tree in a pot.
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This is the pot that I was looking at for the tree. Needs a bit more work on the roots.
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I prepared the pot with a screen and 3 tie wires.

I learned this from Ryan Neil of Bonsai Mirai. Doing this allows you to pierce the rootball if needed to get both wires through without volcanoes erupting over frustration.
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Aeration layer on the bottom.
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Further root reduction.IMG_3769IMG_3770IMG_3771
Once I get the wires through, I cut off the tops to continue with the tying down process. IMG_3773
Once I secure the tree in, I cut off the remaining wires and push them down into the soil to hide the wires.
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Got to this point, now to look at the canopy and what to reduce.
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Close up of the trunk.
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IMG_3784I removed a bit of the branches. I’m not 100% sure what direction I want to go on this yet, so I removed crossing branches, any branches that were too long without taper, and shortened the height of it. I’ll revisit this during the late Spring or Summer to see how it is working.

Cleaning A Chinese Juniper

Cleaning your trees before wiring and styling is just as important as wiring itself. Here are a few photos of before and after of cleaning the interiors to give you an idea of what that looks like:

Before:                                          After:
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Before:                                          After:
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This is a spindly piece of foliage that gets removed before any branch selection is made.
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This is what I started with:
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This is what I finished with:IMG_2993

It isn’t exactly what I wanted, but I recognized myself just wanting to be done, so I left it and I’ll let it grow out a bit and repot it next season to split the trees. This isn’t the final design by any means. It is a pretty good start to a $1 purchase from Walmart 😀

Plans For The Elm

This elm had a rough year. I was hoping to get better ramified branching this year after repotting, but instead of ramification and smaller leaves I got long internodes, vigorous growth, and a near death experience when I left for vacation.

I have this blue pot that I’m excited to combine with the yellow color of the Fall leaves on this Elm.

Both the trunk and the pot are pretty feminine in design, and will compliment each other nicely once combined. The smaller size of the pot will help to facilitate smaller leaves and internodes. Hopefully I can get a bit more progression in refinement this next year.

Portulacaria Afra Behemoth

I decided to work on a few Portulacaria Afra trees. Practicing wiring on these trees is great due to the spacing between leaves and branches. This first little guy didn’t need too much wire to set the structure.

When it is repotted it will get a slight angle change.

Keeping the lower right branch to help thicken the trunk as a sacrifice branch

The next P. Afra that I worked on was the behemoth that I got for $5. I decided to be indecisive. The design I have in mind has me cutting off several larger branches, so I wired it to open up the possibility of growth, while not shutting off the idea of keeping the branches or cutting them off.

The pad formation from bird’s eye view.

Another shot from above. I was able to wire two branches with the same wire which allows for the tree to have a total amount of less wire on the branch for better aethstetics.

Everything from above.

The end product. I have an idea of what I want to do, but we’ll see as we go forward.

I want to cut in 4 places and end up with two large informal uprights, a good cutting from the back, and a cascading branch that can be worked for a few more years.