Thick 'n thin: Prune trees for best growth

Q: Shiver me timbers! I've recently bought a house with a yard, and I'm starting to twig that tree maintenance is harder than it looks. To keep me from having to leaf through books on the subject, would you mind giving me some pointers?

A: To keep your trees looking good, pruning is key. You should eliminate all dead wood and not allow your trees to get too thick or full.

A tree in anything less than an ideal situation, which is the case for most trees, will almost always need regular pruning. You'll know when the time is right when the tree starts to show signs of stress, such as off-color leaves, bark disease, or dieback (the gradual dying of plants that begins at the tips). Trees that aren't pruned are more prone to insect infestations, too.

As long as you don't let your trees get out of hand, homeowners can usually do their own pruning, but don't use just any old saw for the job. The best tools are basic hand pruners and hi-tech pole pruners for those hard-to-reach places. Any local hardware store sells them.

Don't get carried away with your new purchases and prune too much, though. If you over-prune, you'll do more harm than good to your tree. If too much light reaches the center of the tree, it may suffer bark damage. You don't want to skew the proper proportions of the crown and root areas of the tree, either, because it will react by quickly growing many more branches, which can cause it to die.

Trees in urban or suburban areas often need to be helped along with fertilizer, especially if they are moved from a natural environment to one with more competitors and urban hindrances. Dogwoods, for instance, grow on the edge of wooded or shady areas in nature, but they're often used in cities and suburban areas as street trees because of their small stature. Needless to say, that's not an ideal environment for them, and they'll do better if fertilized.

Since summer is the season of storms, it's always smart to safeguard your trees if you know heavy rainfall is on the way. Again, correct pruning is important. Remove any weak limbs that might get knocked off in the storm, and facilitate airflow through the branches by thinning them out a bit. These precautions will definitely minimize potential damage and may even save the life of the tree.

Dave Rosene