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Creating a silk purse from sow’s ear

There is a tree planting mantra that says “right tree in right place” and, if not followed, results in the title of this article.

As tree warden I take that mantra seriously and while I have no control over what is planted by landowners, within the town right of way I can advise and hopefully take a sow’s ear and make it into a silk purse. This article may sound like tree planting in February but it is actually about the benefits of pruning.

I noticed a couple of years ago that some very poorly formed red maples had been planted along one of our Shrewsbury roads. Poorly formed because they did not have the capacity by themselves to develop into a roadside tree that would provide the benefits of shade and still keep themselves out of the actual road. For a roadside tree to contribute, it must at least have a trunk that can develop a crown above the road (14-foot clearance over the road) and be structurally sound enough to prevent large sections from snapping off as the crowns each summer develop and add weight and pressure to the trunk and major side branches.

These trees lacked both.   As they stood there, the temptation to just ask to remove them crossed my mind but the landowner had I’m sure a valid reason for planting trees and I actually hate to cut trees down.  The resulting solution, with landowner permission, is to take the present trees over the next  several years and try to “reform” them into a shape more becoming a “roadside tree.” Creating a reasonably straight trunk is a major challenge given the ungainliness of them with the other challenge being to correct the very poor branch angles present throughout. The closer two branches are to creating a “V” form, the greater the chance of their growing together and enclosing bark between them, instead of growing solid wood. Sure future potential for branch failure down the road.

February and March are great times to enjoy your silk purses and see what you can do about the sow’s ears in your yard.

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