Essentials for Getting the Job Done
BY ROGER B. SWAIN
WINTER whittles down the landscape. Freezing rain transforms trees into fragile chandeliers, and heavy wet snow bends limbs past the breaking point. Avalanches rumbling from roofs crush foundation plantings, while the blade of the passing snowplow knocks off anything that leans into the road. Looking out the window at the accumulating wreckage, it is faint consolation to know that spring is only a crocus or two away.
The loss of even part of a plant we have worked hard to raise is a blow. Rather than face what’s left, we are sometimes tempted to dismiss the plant for good, to erase it from the landscape. But not every winter wound is mortal. Timely pruning can remove the damage and start the plant on its way to fresh growth. Which brings us to the tools of the tree surgeon’s trade—the sharp blades that are needed to separate the living from the dead. Sharpness is all important if the cuts are to be clean and quick healing, and gardeners are well advised to spend a few minutes each winter honing the edges of pruning shears and ordering a new blade for the pruning saw.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT TOOL
There is little that one can do while ice and snow still grip the landscape, but once the weather moderates, it’s time to attend to the casualties. Small stems that have snapped can be readily cut back with a pair of puning shears or the heavier loppers. Where the diameter is an inch or more, however, the tool to use is a hand pruning saw. These have blades that vary in length from 7 to 13 inches. The newest generation of these saws, known as turbo-style saws, have teeth sharpened on three edges and quickly slice through wood that’s four to six inches in diameter. To protect the blade as well as the hands of the gardener, these saws fold up or come with their own sheath. As for keeping the teeth razor sharp, one can buy a special file, but a replacement blade each year seems a justifiable extravagance.
Where the damaged wood is too thick for a hand saw, it is tempting to reach for a chain saw. But pruning with a chain saw can be dangerous, especially when the saw is wielded at any great height. Worst of all is trying to use a chain saw while standing atop a ladder. Not only is the footing inadequate, but the falling wood all too often knocks the ladder down, with disastrous consequences.
GETTING PROFESSIONAL HELP
So what should you do when faced with a large limb high up that needs cutting? Hire an arborist. He or she will climb the tree, suspend themselves by rope and saddle, and use a lightweight arborist’s chain saw to make the cut. A second rope in the hands of a groundperson will safely lower the cut wood to the ground. Such expertise is bought at a price, but you’ll find that estimates for the same job vary widely depending on who is doing the work. Just be sure to check that the person you hire is a certified arborist, and not simply someone more fearless than you.
In the case of canopy damage, it is also sometimes acceptable to do nothing at all. Trees, after all, have encountered disaster before. Trees that are all but topless after an ice storm can regrow crowns that are nearly indistinguishable from the originals with no intervention whatsoever. But backyard trees in which a dead limb is left hanging should have the “widowmaker” removed, lest it fall and brain someone.
Whether you undertake to clean up the storm damage yourself or hire others to do it, the result will be a pile of brush and wood—its size depending on the severity of the winter. In dealing with this pile, the rule of thumb should be to keep all the wood wherever possible. For starters, it will save you money if you can tell the arborist that you will take care of the cut branches once they are safely on the ground. But more important, you will be conserving valuable organic matter that belongs to the land.
Here a chain saw can be both useful and safely used. Electric models are more than adequate for many small backyards, where either an extension cord can reach the fallen wood, or where the limbs can be moved nearer to the house for rendering. They are also wonderfully quiet and start as soon as you pull the trigger. Their gas-powered counterparts are better suited for larger clean-up jobs farther afield.
Arborists are primarily interested in the cut wood’s swift disposal, and usually arrive towing a chipper behind their truck. Some of these machines will take in logs up to a foot in diameter and spit out a steady stream of fragments. Smaller homeowner models are available for purchase or rent with engines that vary from five to seven horsepower. In recent years, these have become popular additions to the gardener’s toolshed. But whether they are large or small, it is important to remember that wood chippers, chipper shredders, and chipper-vacs cannot distinguish tree limbs from human ones. Every year too many people ignore the ample safety warnings that bedeck these machines.
Chippers do a dramatic job of reducing the volume of prunings. The cost, noise, and risk associated with such swift digestion, though, may be hard to justify if all you want is wood chips. Producing even a single cubic yard’s worth can take longer than you might think when you’re using a small machine. Wood chips do make a good mulch, but when quantities are needed it’s far easier to have the chips delivered. Indeed, your local arborist will gladly give you a truckload for free to avoid having to pay a dumping charge.
As for your unchipped prunings, nature will dismantle them in surprisingly few years. And unlike pressure-treated wood, when this wood begins to fall apart you’ll be able to add it safely to the compost heap. Meanwhile, use the limbs, logs, and branches for edging beds, for fence posts, for pea brush, and benches. Try looking at this wood not as the remains of a disaster, but as homegrown garden parts—not as something lost, but as value found.
For sources of tools mentioned in this article, turn to page 88.
Once upon a time, it was considered good practice to paint the freshly cut surface left by removing a branch with some sort of wound dressing. Arborists went aloft with a bucket and brush dangling from their belts. In theory, the dressings-which varied from asphalt to polyurethane and shellac—prevented disease from invading the freshly cut wood. Since then, however, a series of experiments have failed to find any real benefit from the use of wound dressings. Indeed, thick coatings of asphalt tree paint may actually encourage decay. Painting the cut surface does make it darker and less conspicuous, so there is some cosmetic value. (Painting also plays a useful role in grafting; see “Starting Off Right, page 34.] But provided the cut has been properly made, a natural zone of biochemical protection within the tree will wall off the zone of decay. The only purpose for which tree paint is still recommended is to slow the spread of oak wilt, a disease affecting the red oak subgenus (red, black, pin, and scarlet oak) in the eastern and central United States. As a rule, red oaks should never be pruned between April 1 and July 1. If they must, a thin coating of wound dressing is still recommended to prevent the open wound from attracting sap-feeding (and disease-carrying) beetles. With any other freshly cut surface, as bright as it may gleam at the moment, leave it alone. Time will darken it.–R.B.S.