Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Operating on your tree

Mark Hinsley is often called on to explain the various operations which may be carried out on a tree so here he gives an insight into the terms you will need to understand.

In the turbulent times we now live in I thought I would share this with you:

Give fools their gold,
and knaves their power;
let fortune’s bubbles rise and fall;
who sows a field,
or trains a flower,
or plants a tree,
is more than all.
- John Greenleaf Whittier

When dealing with Tree Preservation Orders or Conservation Areas tree owners will need various terms which describe operations that may be undertaken on their tree, but who knows what these terms mean? Without being exhaustive, which would take up the whole issue of this magazine, here are a few that may help:

Coppicing – This is the process of cutting a tree or bush down to ground level and allowing it to grow up again. This is a woodland management technique that has been in existence for thousands of years. It is a means of producing large amounts of small wood, such as withies for thatching and hurdle making, posts for fencing or logs for firewood. It is used to increase the ornamental impact of woody plants with coloured stems such as some of the Dogwoods. Conifers will not coppice.

Pollarding – The origins of pollarding are the same as coppicing and it was done for the same reasons. The difference was that pollarding was done at a height above ground where the new shoots could not be reached by browsing livestock such as deer or cattle. True pollarding is initiated when the tree is still young and then continued throughout the life of the tree. Conifers will not pollard.    

Topping – This is the act of cutting the top off a tree. It is a very damaging thing to do if the tree is mature. It will create pollard type regrowth in broadleaf trees, but not in conifers. It allows the ingress of decay from the exposed top that will run all the way down the trunk.

LoppingLopping – This is the act of cutting off side branches. It can be damaging to mature trees if the branches are large as it can allow decay into the main trunk.

Any activity that removes a large amount of the leaf area of a tree can be harmful because the tree’s ability to photosynthesise will have been reduced. Consequently, the defence mechanisms in the tree will use whatever resources the tree has stored to try and put the leaves back on as quickly as possible. This can leave the tree very stressed, weak and vulnerable to disease.

Crown lifting – This is the act of removing some of the lower branches. It is most frequently done to prevent low branches causing an obstruction to vehicles, people, horses, lawn mowers, etc. or coming in contact with structures. It can also be done to allow light to filter under the canopy of a tree.  Done carefully it does little harm, although it can cause long-term structural problems in trees that will spread by self-layering such as Western Red Cedar.

Crown cleaning – This is the removal of dead wood and damaged branches. It does no harm to the tree but does rather sterilise it for wildlife conservation – so don’t do it if you don’t have to.

Crown thinning – This involves reducing the number of branches throughout the canopy. It can have its uses to manage the regrowth from past problems or to tidy up some ornamentals that simply grow too dense. However, most of the time it benefits nobody for more than 12 months and is then worse than it was when you started.

Trees are self-optimising organisms – most of the time they are best left to look after themselves.

Mark Hinsley is from Arboricultural Consultants Ltd.

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