Tree Pruning Time

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Short article for Planted Perfect:

Tree Pruning Time Again


It is getting to that time of year when I need to prune my pear and apple trees. This is normally one of my favorite periods in the gardening calendar but weather patterns are so bizarre at the moment that I may need to get up there in adverse weather instead of waiting for one of those wonderful sunny winter days we used to have. The end of last year was so warm that the sap was still rising right up until Christmas. Now that I have to get the pruning done we seem to be cursed with constant rain and cold.

Many years ago I used to do a lot of tree surgery and it seemed that whole days would go by without my feet touching the ground. I could leap about the branches like a squirrel with a caffeine rush in those days. Things have changed, however, and I now find it slightly more difficult climbing in among the boughs. Some of my so called friends have suggested that this may have something to do with the fact that I have had to let out my belt a few notches and that the two circumstances me be somewhat interlinked. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. What has really happened is that a little known scientific phenomenon has taken place which has seen an increase in the Earth’s gravitational pull and climbing into tall trees has now just become more difficult than it used to be.

Pruning a Tree

Fortunately fruit trees tend to be of a fairly moderate size and it is not necessary for me to don my climbing harness (which seems to have shrunk somehow) as most of the work I do can be accessed from a ladder or with just some minor climbing. It is important to bear safety in mid when doing any sort of pruning work and you should call in a professional if the work is too high. It might also be in your interest to go for a fairly slim looking tree surgeon when getting quotes.

Much of the pruning we do in the garden can be performed by the home owner but you are definitely going to need reliable tools. The two weapons of choice that I use on a daily basis are my secateurs and my pruning saw. These two tools are needed so often that I now carry the secateurs in a holster and the saw slips neatly into a pocket down the side of my trouser leg. This might seem a bit unnecessary, and I admit it makes me look like a slightly tubby version of John Wane, but when you have climbed down from a tree two or three times to retrieve one of your tools that you so carefully balanced on a branch then you will soon agree with me.

A pruning saw is one of those versatile tools that you find yourself needing constantly. I use mine not just for fruit tree pruning but also for tackling the thicker branches on shrubs and rose bushes that would be just that much more difficult with my secateurs. When making cuts on branches a pruning saw also gives you just that little extra bit of reach. I have tried a lot of pruning saws over the years and as a result I now have a very clear idea of what to look for in a tool. I prefer a folding saw. They are easier to slip into your pocket which is often useful and the closed blade is better protected when in a bag of other tools where the sharp teeth could bump up against other tools or will constantly snag on things as you try to pull it out. I don’t like great big monster saws either. I am not cutting up firewood here and I need a tool that is light comfortable to use and efficient. Sawing through green wood should never be difficult and a great big saw is just not necessary and is only going to be cumbersome to use amongst a basket work of branches. That said, I had a quite large branch snapped off over the festive season and will need to clean up the wound this week. Although the branch was about four or five inches in diameter I am confident that I will be able to tidy it up easily with a relatively small saw.

The teeth of a pruning saw are sharper and spaced farther apart than those of an ordinary wood saw. This is because the pruning saw is usually performing tasks involving green wood and the wider teeth spacing prevents their being constantly clogged up by sap covered dust and wood chips. Always check the quality of the blade when buying a new saw because it is the blade that does most of the work after all. You don’t want to find yourself having to push and grind your way through each cut, especially if you are balanced on top of a ladder or straining to the limits of your reach among the branches. The blade should slide smoothly and easily. At the same time your blade needs to be of high enough quality that it won’t snap as I have had happen to me. As a professional, having to go and find another saw costs me both time and money but even for the domestic gardener it can still be a nuisance.

When making cuts larger than about one and a half inches it is wise to use a three stage cut. This involves cutting through one third of the branch’s diameter from the top edge at about twelve inches from the bough. You then cut from the bottom upwards until the branch falls away: after that cut off the remaining twelve inch stub neatly and as close to the bough as possible. This three stage approach is to stop the half cut branch from snapping away under its own weight when you are half way through the cut and tearing the bark. Always aim for as clean a cut as possible when doing any sort of pruning as this reduces the risk of disease getting into your tree or shrub. Using so called wound sealers has been proved to be unnecessary and is now usually done more for cosmetic purposes if that is what pleases you.

In order not to transfer diseases from one cut to another it is often recommended that you clean your blade between cuts. This is good advice but in reality is not always feasible. I tend to carry a rag soaked in ordinary household disinfectant in my pocket and wipe the blade when convenient and always when I move from one plant to the next which is where disease transmission is most likely to take place. Having a good stainless blade makes this cleaning process quick and easy so it is not really too much of a mission even when perched on a ladder.

One more trick that tree surgeons use all the time is a variation of the three stage cut. They make the first cut through one third of the branch and the second cut through a third of the branch on the other side. This leaves the branch supported by a thin middle strip and allows for the saw to be put down so that you have both hands free. You can now break the branch off with a short sharp jerk and let it fall away from you in a more controlled manner than if you were to simply let it fall through its own weight.

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