Pruning 101: Diseased, Dead and Dumb


Facilities prune trees using hand saws. (Campus/Paul Gerard)

By Hye-Jin Kim

The next time you walk by a tree, and a dead branch does not come crashing down, knocking you off your feet, you can thank the College’s Facilities Services Maintenance and Operations. As spring thaw approaches, the College’s landscaping crew is busy pruning trees on campus before the snow melts and reveals quads of yellow grass and muddy shortcut eyesores that need to be dealt with.

At 8:30 a.m. on a crisp and sunny Thursday morning, I met with Horticulturist Tim Parsons, Crew Chief Jon Quelch and the rest of the landscaping crew to learn about tree pruning at the Emma Willard House. Walking from Atwater Dining Hall, the 45 degree temperature and sunny clear skies made athletic shorts and sneakers feel like a great life decision — much better than waddling around in sweatpants.

Fast forward another 30 minutes, shivering underneath the shade of trees in need of pruning and slip-n-sliding across the half-frozen lawn trying to keep up with Parsons, as he flitted from one tree to another, getting more and more excited about each one — now I understood why these men were all wearing jeans and winter jackets.

Meanwhile, Parsons was busy explaining to me why pruning is done mainly for safety and aesthetic reasons.
“In the wild, trees don’t need to be pruned,” he said. “I’m not saying a tree won’t be healthier because of pruning, but generally we don’t prune for the health of the tree, but for our own safety.”

Though pruning happens naturally in the wild, this can be dangerous in the “urban forest,” such as the College campus, if a dead branch could finally give and land on a pedestrian, though Parsons admits “the chance of this happening is very slim, but still.”

As he clipped off the lower branch of a young crab apple tree, Parsons explained the three D’s of pruning: “Dead, Diseased and Dumb. For example, these two branches growing on top of another, competing for the same sunlight? That’s dumb.”
Behind the Emma Willard House, Parsons noted how “cavernous” the backyard appeared with overgrown and overhanging branches. After pruning, the backyard felt more “spacious and welcoming” to visitors.

Late winter is an ideal time to prune trees because the branches are easier to examine and handle without leaves while the temperatures aren’t as cold and harsh. Some little critters also appreciate this timing.

“Because we prune in the winter for the most part, there are no birds in the nests,” said Parsons.
But not all little critters leave their nests empty.

“There was a subcontractor that was doing some tree work on a tree down at the Kitchel House, and a squirrel ran three feet above his head, and ran down into the limb he was on. It was a hollow limb and he couldn’t get the squirrel out to save his life. He didn’t want to work on the tree because he was scared he would hurt the squirrel. So, he was waiting for the longest time for that squirrel to leave because he didn’t want to hurt it.”

Parsons also showed me the three main tools used in pruning. For smaller trees, hand pruners are used. Parsons own several pruners, which he hand-sharpens at the end of every winter pruning season. For medium-sized to large trees, hand saws are used. For even larger trees, pole-saws are the tool of choice.

“The pole-saw”, he pointed out, “has a fitting name.” Picture a hand saw stuck on top of a long, re-tractable pole.
Hand saws are the most commonly used, especially in conjunction with the tree climbing method. Workers climb trees, secured by a special rope on a limb, and prune within the branches. According to Parsons, there haven’t been any accidents (knock on wood).

“As long as you go slow and think carefully about what you’re doing, climbing with a rope is a safe way to prune trees.”
For Buzz, a member of Facilities Services, who learned to climb trees just last winter, the shift to pruning as the days get warmer “breaks up the long cold winter, especially this year, when we did a lot of shoveling. From up there [in the tree], it’s a whole different view.”

Some crew members, like Groundsworker Steve Rheaume, have been climbing for over 10 years.

“You can probably learn to climb a tree [using the rope] in a day or so, but it could take you 12 years to get as good as Steve.”
Rheaume was busy climbing and pruning when we stopped by, but he shouted down at us, “It’s a good workout; you definitely break a sweat! The highest tree I’ve ever climbed was 25, maybe 30 feet.”

As a photographer tried to get Parsons to pose next to the tree being pruned, he pointed at Rheaume and said, “Well, he would be the star, here. Doesn’t that look like fun?”

During my Pruning 101 session, Parsons also pointed out some of his favorite trees on campus, including what he believes is the oldest tree, a huge sprawling 80-foot Bur Oak right by the CFA. Insisting it was worth seeing in person, Parsons offered to drive me down to take a look. I’ve always wanted to ride one of those green John Deere tractors and who wouldn’t want to see a tree that was alive at the same time as George Washington, so of course, I jumped at the chance.

“How fast does this thing go?” I asked as the motor hummed.

“A lot faster than I’m allowed to drive it.” He chuckled.

Parsons is not sure exactly how old the Bur Oak is.

“I’d say 200 years or more. The only real way to age a tree is to count the rings, and to do that, you have to use a special bore technique or cut down the tree and count the rings.  I’m not willing to do either on this tree. But, this has been here at least as long as the school, if not more. It is spectacular.”

When asked about pruning an old specimen like this, he said, “You can see all the dead wood here, there’s a large piece of dead [wood] right there that would have to come off. But for the most part, when trees are this old, they don’t need anything.”

Parsons hopes the Bur Oak has another 200 years, but knows this might be far-fetched. Health-wise, though, the tree seems to be in good shape.

“There’s not a lot dead [branches], it has a lot of nice young shoots, new twigs, it’s still putting out a decent amount of growth this year,” he said. Though 200 might be unrealistically long, Parsons believes the tree sill stick around for a long time.