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Tree Tune-Up

If your trees are looking a bit tired or tacky, perhaps it's time to tackle a bit of tree tune-up.

"Show me a tree that's been in the ground for at least three years, and I'll show you a tree in need of a tune-up," says master gardener Paul James.

An otherwise healthy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) has a weird, wacky branch that's upsetting the normal shape of the tree (figure A).

James removes the errant limb by pruning it all the way back to the main trunk, and in the process, the awkward imbalance is corrected (figure B).

Similarly, another Japanese maple in his garden has seen better days. When James planted the tree last fall, it looked great--until spring rolled around. That's when the tree started to show severe signs of stress for reasons even he couldn't begin to explain. While there's good growth on one side of the tree scattered here and there, much of the tree's branches are barren.

"My first inclination was to remove the tree by digging it up, cutting it down, and throwing it away." But instead, James prunes back all the branches where die-back has occurred, leaving those branches that appear healthy. "When I'm done, the tree won't look like much, but then again, it didn't look like much before I started this process either." It will probably be two to three years until the tree returns to a more acceptable form.

Nearby, James discovered a potentially disastrous problem on a Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa). A branch near the base of the tree has split in two (figure C). He suspects that the grower tried to cover up the split with some twine, which can be a questionable practice, but thankfully, it appears as though the wood has started callusing or healing, since the top growth appears to be perfectly healthy.

"But just to be on the safe side, I'm going to re-enforce the split along the branch with several wraps of even more twine (figure D)." James will periodically inspect the split and loosen the twine if necessary so that it doesn't wind-up restricting the growth of the tree.

"This technique doesn't work all the time, especially if the split is really large. But it does work a good percentage of the time, and let's face it, any attempt at saving this tree is better than losing the tree all together."

A large limb that has torn away from the trunk of a redbud presents a much more challenging problem. "I don't think there's much hope for this tree," says James. "When the hardwood of a tree is exposed (figure F), it's next to impossible for the tree to heal properly. The tear causes the hardwood to rot overtime, and once that happens, the tree will be a goner."

Branches that weep all the way to the ground can be attractive, but they can also make it next to impossible to grow grass beneath it (figure G). And, even if the grass does grow, getting the mower underneath the branches can be a royal pain, often leading to broken tree limbs. What's more, if the leaves remain in contact with the grass, especially if the grass is wet with dew, the leaves may be more susceptible to fungal diseases. James suggests removing those branches. This process won't alter the look of the tree all that much, and it will make mowing a lot easier. "I don't often recommend the process of limbing up trees, especially trees whose natural growth habit is to produce lots of low-growing branches. But in some cases, limbing up does indeed improve the overall look of the tree."

A weeping katsura (Cercidiphyllum) is a little-known tree and one of James' favorites (figure I). "This tree is perfectly healthy; in fact, it's doing better than I ever imagined it would in my hot, humid climate." But the other day while checking it out, James noticed he had forgotten to remove the stake. And even with a weeping tree, you want to be sure to remove the stake from the tree at least within the first year. "So, I'm going to take it out, but I have to be really careful because something else I noticed, a mother robin has built her nest in there and there are three beautiful little babies."

"Remember," says James. "You can tackle these tree tune-up tasks virtually any time of the year."

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