March 23, 2010

The Shape of Things

In the wild trees grow any which way they want or can.  Double leaders, multiple trunks, offshoots, twisted forms, it's all good.  But in our landscapes we want trees with pleasing shapes, and that means pruning them while they're still small.  It's like raising teenagers: you have to do a lot of shaping while they are young, and then hope they follow the form you set out when they grow up.

Most of my trees are small; I usually plant one gallon or five gallon container saplings.  Many of my juvenile trees are at that awkward stage and need help.  Sometimes my problem is not what to prune off; instead I have missing limbs, and lopsided forms.  I really need to add limbs, or somehow attach them in different locations on the trunk.

I have photographed several examples this month before they leaf out so you can see what I'm fussing about.

Here is my flowering cherry, Prunus Okame.  You can see there is a nice angled limb to the left, but the right side of this twiggy trunk has no lower branches at all.  It's a beautiful bloomer, and it even has nice fall color.  But what can I do to make this look more like a tree and not so much like a one armed soldier saluting?

And here is a skimpy looking sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana.  You can see it is also missing lower branches on one side.  But if I take off that lone lower branch I'll have a magnolia lollipop:
(Here it is again, from another angle and in leaf.  I really don't want to trim off that lower branch):

Some of my trees have branches in the wrong places.  Here is my paperbark maple, Acer griseum, another beautiful tree.  The peeling reddish bark is awesome, the fall color is a nice rusty red, but it's unevenly branched.  This has a large limb to the left that should be pruned off, but then what do I have left?

This is my pink flowering dogwood, Cornus florida.  It's nice and full, but the branches on the left angle out; those on the right angle up.  Sometimes you can use a little discipline, just like you do with teenagers.  In this case I have tied the rightmost branches to a stake, and I'm pulling them downward over time to become a little more horizontal.  Sometimes this can work, sometimes it doesn't.  Just so you know, I never tied my teenage children to a stake despite overwhelming justification; this is a tree branch discipline only.

A couple of my new trees slouch.  Here is a tiny dwarf ginkgo, called Spring Grove, and even though it is only 18 inches high (it will get to be 3 feet or so), it looks like it wants to sit down:

A Hyndrangea paniculata 'Tardiva' standard has been growing with a curved trunk that keeps it from being able to stand on its own.  You have to look closely through the twiggy fothergilla at its base, but take a close peek and you'll see it's so curved, it might just lie down on its side in the dirt if I didn't keep it staked:

I feel as though it's a constant battle to get these young trees to shape up.   It really does remind me of raising teens; the worry that they won't turn out right, the conviction that they are always going to be this way, I mean always.  The persistent interventions, including support, strings, crutches, constant help.  They just won't be decent mature specimens without a lot of work on my part.

But here's the good news.  I have done this before.  I have raised teens, and they have straightened up and they have matured and they have become good men -- hard working, loving, thriving, decent adult men.

I just need to be patient.  Prune a little off, offer some support, and be patient. 


  1. I like your philosophy of being supportive and patient. Right now your young trees look too me like teenagers that are skinny because they've shot up too fast. :)

    You have a great collection.

  2. Ah, hope the trees turn out as well and the teenagers! ;-)

  3. It does take time and skill to get those trees to turn out right, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, trees will grow up with less than perfect form. Who wants all perfect trees? I like a tree with character!

  4. Sweet bay, thanks for admiring my collection of twigs!

    Garden Ms. S, I too hope these trees turn out like my boys, that would be a great result.

    Deborah, I like character, but I want to determine what the "character" looks like : ) Hmm, now I see it's a control thing, oh dear.

  5. Calmez-vous Laurrie, they will be ok. Just give them time - although I think that magnolia branch has to go. Thank you for your comments on my blog. Hope to see you again. Gillian.

  6. Gillian, thanks for your visit. I do need a big dose of patience!


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