Commissioner: Over-pruning trees can be ‘chainsaw massacre’

Sean C. Morgan

It’s about time to start pruning trees, and the Sweet Home Tree Commission wants to make sure that pruning is done correctly.

“There’s an awful lot of topping in this town,” said Alice Smith, a Tree Commission member who also works as a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Tree topping is not really pruning. It’s more like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

It makes a big mess out of the trees.

Often, a resident has a big tree and is afraid a branch may drop on a neighbor’s house, Smith said. He or she cuts the branch in an effort to prevent this, but the tree has a root system that corresponds to the tree’s crown.

That root system drives the fast growth of 10 to 20 “suckers” from the stump, Smith said. “Any time you grow wood really fast, it’s weak.”

During the next ice storm, those branches break and fall, she said. The mid-branch cuts also expose the tree to disease and insects.

“You made your tree more dangerous by doing this,” Smith said.

What tree pruners should do is cut a dangerous branch all the way back to the trunk and train their trees as they grow, Smith said, and this is the best time of year to prune – late winter or early spring.

“You don’t notice a good pruning job,” Smith said. “It still looks like a healthy full crown.”

Branches that should be cut are those that are dead, diseased, deformed, discolored or damaged, Smith said. “If it’s healthy, leave it there. You’re better off not touching the tree than you are doing a poor job of pruning. That brings me to the next point, the right tree in the right place. Every tree has a right place.”

Smith suggests looking around and seeing what may be a problem for a tree.

Look up, she said. If there’s a power line, don’t plant a Douglas fir under it.

That said, the power company has gotten better at properly pruning trees around wires, Smith said. At the same time, the power company isn’t bound by aesthetics.

“When I think about planting a street tree here in town, the first thing I do is look up,” she said. Columnar trees are often good choices. The Tree Commission also generally uses species with small leaves and no fruit to avoid clogging the city’s drainage system.

As a young tree grows, Smith said it can be trained by cutting off the right branches.

“Cut off the little branches you can see are going to grow into being a problem,” Smith said. If a branch will be too low over the sidewalk in 10 years, cut it off now.

Members of the Tree Commission will happily assist residents in selecting an appropriate species for a given location, Smith said. Call her at (541) 367-5168 or Community Development Director Carol Lewis at (541) 367-8113 to reach a member of the Tree Commission.

When hiring someone to prune, Smith suggests telling the pruner exactly what you want – make sure they cut the branch all the way back. Again, the Tree Commission is willing to give advice on trees in Sweet Home and can help residents decide what to do.