Portland Landscape Design and Tree Care Service

Pruning is Management

Copyright 2005 - 2011 by M. D. Vaden. Pruning information is divided into Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Etc. - plus other pruning topics.


Pruning Boils-Down to Highly Skilled Management

This article is meant to be encouraging for those who have their heart set on becoming adept at pruning. The skill requires patience. Hopefully this will provide some extra insight.

Ever wondered what the difference is between an Amateur and Pro when it comes to the top level of skilled pruning?

Pruning expert next to an Atlas Cedar

The great chasm between Amateurs and Professionals is their management ability. Not neccessarily "people skills" but the management of woodly plant structure.

Hopefully this won't burst the bubble for some folks who think of pruning as magic, sacred or a mysterious talent. But the truth remains that pruning involves management based on experience, technology and plenty of wisdom.

Highly skilled pruning exceeds virtually any pruning book or video, no matter how good the author. That's because books, videos and seminars cannot transfer or impart the management skills that make a Master Pruning Specialist.

Are you familiar with the term "leader" or leaders used for the main stems of trees or large shrubs?

The word leader may be the ultimate choice for a main stem because pruning involves the management of leaders and subordinate branches. In many ways, I relate it to coordinating managers and employees in a company or corporation.

Let's consider a company for example

Suppose a new company sprouts from a city the way Nike Inc. did back in 1964 when Phil Knight sold shoes out of his car trunk. The company begins small at a point of origin and can become large with planning. Growth eventually requires employment of workers and managers to oversee departments.

If the company is to efficiently develop, managers (leaders) must all move in a coordinated effort. The goal will be expansion outward. The direction is a matter of choice, but with big corporations it's often nationwide or international: in all directions.

The manager or leader of advertising must be in sync with the transportation manager, storage manager, personel manager, etc.. The employees must follow them as subordinates, taking their lead and working with accuracy and precision.

Pruning follows the same basics

A big plant like an Atlas Cedar begins at a small point of origin. From there, leaders begin to emerge, storing tissue reserves and leading growth outward from the main trunk. If it was planted too close to a home or sidewalk, the canopy must be led the other way - up and sideways. If it was given plenty of space, the canopy can expand in all directions. The foliage can drape the ground or be raised high enough for people to walk underneath. Either way, it requires management of the leaders and subordinate branches.

If a leader is growing the wrong direction, it will need to be removed immediately or eventually. Compare this again to a company. If the departement head (leader) of advertising increased the volume of ads in New Mexico, but the owner wants expansion in Florida, the ad person may be removed. Another leader or a subordinate capable of doing the job right can take over.

With pruning, experience coupled with technology reigns because no two plants or species are identical. The leaders of Western Redcedar differ from the potential of Flowering Currant, Weeping Japanese Maple or Witchhazel.

The leaders move or grow at different rates, and the subordinate branches vary in number and spacing. This means the rate at which leaders can be removed or replaced varies too. And it takes years if not decades to master selection and management of those.

Today --- I pruned a Weeping Japanese Maple that was near a sidewalk.. Finally, after about an 8 year wait I was finally able to remove two main branches or leaders. For at least 8 years I was saving smaller subordinate limbs to take their place, to shift the canopy up and sideways away from the sidewalk an extra one foot. This was the first time in 8 years where everything came together to make those pruning cuts. The smaller limbs became big enough, and the remaining volume of canopy was sufficient after the main branches were removed. In another 6 to 10 years that maple will need to be shifted upward and southwest one more foot, and it will take that much time to manage the leaders to repeat the process again.

Even in a company, firing or removing too manyleaders at one time can cause problems. Topped plants remind me of that. One topped Sango-Kaku maple in Lake Oswego and a topped Western Redcedar in Beaverton come to mind. They had good single main stem leaders to begin with - then some "Hack" butchered them and destroyed the good leadership structure. The result was wild growth with subordinates competing to take over, growing congested and in every direction.

Many novices try to correct that kind of thing by removing all the problems at once, trying to remove ALL crossing, ALL the bent whippy tops. Etc.. That's not the way to approach the problem. And with the maple example it took about 5 years to slowly thin the explosion of competing leaders to retain the best ones to gain organized expansion.

Often, what makes a master of pruning the master is not what they remove, but what they leave and how long they leave it.

Due to the leader management needed for long-term pruning, most decisions can be made on the inside of the canopy. Except for a couple of quick glances from the ground, pruning experts should be able to tell where the growth is going and what needs to be cut from the inside. So if you see someone getting in and out of the canopy or climbing on and off the orchard ladder every few minutes to "size up" the looks of the form, that's not a good sign.


Fruit production, like apple and pear, can be one the most demanding and intricate canopy management. That's because the canopy and branches are restricted. Tops and leaders are not allowed to continually grow and expand. It could be compared to successfully operating a company where every manager was limited to just one year of service: an extreme rate of turnover, yet retaining maximum quality and pruduction.

One of the most common problems I see novices make with apple pruning, is trying to save every interior limb perpetually. They should be developing new limbs for replacements so they can retire more of older limbs. This management practice can begin by salvaging a few water sprouts and manipulating them every single year. The direction can be altered by cutting at buds which face the right direction.

For now, this should clarify that skilled pruning equates to skilled management of various species.

To be continued ...


M. D. Vaden of Oregon