The Easiest Way to Help a Tree

A tree hacked back so hard, its identity is difficult to ascertain

Tree pruning, admittedly, can be complicated. Usually, if I speak more than two sentences about it to my clients, their eyes glaze over. There’s lots of info about heading cuts and lateral buds and cambium layers, so I want to share the one, most basic way that homeowners can help their trees stay healthy without needing a degree in forestry: don’t leave stumps.

The sawed off tree branch is blunt and round and easily recognizable. It juts out and suddenly ends like an unfinished sentence or song on pause. (A topped tree is the king of stumps.) I see them often, whether driving through my neighborhood or consulting with a client on their property. Many homeowners don’t realize that a tree can actually heal its wounds if you cut a branch in the correct place. There are generally two correct places where a tree can be cut in an effort to preserve its health: at the “branch collar” where the branch meets the larger tree branch or trunk, and the nearest bud. If you cut at the branch collar or bud mark, little hormones kick in and begin the process of creating tissue, tissue that eventually envelopes the cut and covers it. It’s amazing and awesome when it works. The tree’s tissue surrounds its wound, just like healthy human skin creates new cells to consume, shrink, and eliminate a scab. Unfortunately, some homeowners don’t know this and randomly cut branches as if a tree doesn’t care. A tree does care. It has a logic to its growth patterns. It can not speak but it communicates by doing tree things.

Looks like a healthy dogwood, most likely never pruned

Imagine a fresh cut on your hand. Now imagine that instead of allowing dry air to help it scab over, you put the wound under a faucet every few minutes. What would happen? It would swell and inflame, maybe become infected. Maybe turn to mush and rot. This happens with tree branches as well. Rain wets the branch’s cut end, whose vascular system (a feeding system akin to our veins) has now been exposed to moisture, bringing on rot and disease. That rot streams through the plant’s vascular system, traveling through the plant and weakening its health.

When I lay it out like this, it sounds depressing. And yet trees with stubs stand helplessly on lawns and parking strips all the time. They can’t run away from their errant owners. So this spring I urge everyone who owns or cares for a tree to get outside and cut off the tree’s stumps. For easy directions on finding the proper place to cut, click on this sheet from the Arbor Day Foundation. It’s very possible you can transform an unhealthy ugly duckling into a fairly healthy swan again.

By the way, if you’d like an in-person consultation, contact me. If you have a quick question, I’m happy to help via email.

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