Cutting Back

Happy New Year to one and all! I hope that 2011 finds you all well, and brings great joy to each and every one of you.

After the culinary excesses of Christmas and heralding in the New Year with champagne galore, January is the month when most people decide to cut back and recover. I think we shall be joining them! We have had a most enjoyable couple of weeks, celebrating at home with family and friends; watching the Boxing Day Tug O’ War over the icy ford in the village before tucking into a barbecue provided by the village inn; lots of long walks and lazy days. I have baked tray upon tray of mince pies and cheese and onion rolls; we made rich vanilla ice cream and zingy strawberry and white rum sorbet in the new attachment to our food mixer/processor, accompanied by warm homemade chocolate brownies; and there was fresh bread, platters of cheese, eggs Benedict for breakfast… Definitely time to cut back a little!

Now is also the last chance to cut back any maples or birch trees, before the sap starts to rise again, which causes cuts to weep, weakening the trees. The sap rises very early in these trees,  so pruning of birches (which should be minimal) should be restricted to between late summer and mid-winter.

So, this afternoon we ventured out to finish pruning our mature birch tree, as small snowflakes tumbled down from the sky in the wake of the light dusting of snow on the ground that fell overnight and thawed slowly in the morning.

It is important to make clean, smooth cuts when pruning trees, to avoid disease and encourage new wood to form most rapidly and protect the tree.  At the junction between a branch and the trunk of the tree, the branch collar is an important site for the tree’s natural defence mechanism – it is very important never to cut branches flush with the trunk as this damages this junction, and endangers the tree. The cut should be slightly angled outwards from top to bottom, leaving a subtle stub – too large a stub can also cause the tree difficulties. Generally, it is recommended to start the cut 2-3cm along the top of the branch from the crotch where it joins the main trunk, angled slightly outwards. The cut that we have made above on the left stub could have been improved slightly by starting a little further to the right of the top edge.

On the opposite side of the garden, a horse chestnut and beech tree grow in very close proximity just inside our boundary. Both trees have been rather neglected, and so we are starting to work on these to ease congestion, and restrict their growth a little to keep them manageable. I didn’t take any pictures today before we began work, but you can see the strong shape of the trees above after removing just one or two branches.

The horse chestnut has clearly been pollarded in the past as you can see by the thick stumps halfway up the main branches in the picture above. We aim to reduce the latest growth back towards these stumps in the coming weeks, but today we started by taking off a large branch that grew out into the garden from low on the trunk. The cut is hidden by the pallets in the photograph! This should have been removed when the tree was young to encourage the branches to start at a reasonable height: reducing it now should still help to balance the shape of the tree.

The beech tree (to the right of the horse chestnut when looking from the house) is in a rather sorrier condition. It appears never to have received any training, so there are several trunks of equal girth competing for space and winding about one another, and in many cases separate branches re-merge together higher up the tree.

It will be much harder to renovate this, but it is a beautiful tree, so we have made one or two exploratory cuts today to remove some younger branches that were badly crossing the older trunks, and we intend to reduce these trunks in the coming weeks to open the tree back up. Removing another low branch on the horse chestnut will also separate these trees a little,  to allow the beech tree more space to spread.

Both the horse chestnut and beech trees are forming sturdy buds as winter marches towards spring; I hope that our renovation work encourages these trees and look forward to seeing their new leaves in the coming months.

Our next priority is to plant new hedges, sort out hard landscaping around the house and restructure the gardens before starting to plant them. I shall be exploring these topics in the next few weeks as we make our decisions and begin this year’s work, which should start to see a garden reborn from the current debris. Very exciting!

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9 thoughts on “Cutting Back

  1. Hi Sara; Welcome to the New Year. I’m also going to have to begin a diet very soon, after all the excesses of the holiday period.
    I hope you have a wood-burning stove! What is the construction with the corrugated-iron roof? Is it a log-store?
    There was lots of discussion on my blog recently about coppicing hazel trees (for making bean-poles etc). Do you have any Hazels?

    • Hi Mark, We certainly do have a wood burning stove, so the wood will go to good use once it has been cut and seasoned.
      Yes that is our set of log-stores beyond the trees; my husband made them himself (very beautifully, I must say!) and they run down almost to the end of the garden along the edge of our vegetable patch, marking the border with our neighbour. We hope to build some more this year up by the house once the hard surfaces are down; much nicer dashing out to get wood just outside the back doors, rather than hauling a wheelbarrow all the way down to the bottom of the garden to fill up and haul back once or twice a day as we currently do!
      Ah I shall read all about your coppicing debate when I have the chance – I have a lot of reading to catch up on from the past couple of weeks! We have planted a couple of filbert/cobnut trees which in time we can coppice some sticks from, but no other hazels as yet. I hope to pop one or two into a boundary here and there though… the hedgerows near us contain a lot of hazels.

  2. Hi Sara, sounds as if you had a thoroughly delicious festive period, how wonderful to live somewhere with a Boxing Day tug-of-war! I need to raise the crowns on my birches this year, so this was a timely reminder that the sooner I get on with this the better. Good luck with the beech tree, its so much harder to train a tree that large. Several years of neglect mean I have two trunks on my happily still very young crabapple, which I also need to tackle.

    Your plans for hedges etc sound great, shall follow your progress avidly! Happy 2011.

    • Hi Janet, happy 2011 to you too. It was a lovely break, hard going back to work today! It’s great being in a village with a good sense of community, the Boxing Day antics were really good fun.
      Yes, the beech tree will be interesting – my husband had cut one of the twisty crossing branches through with the chainsaw before either of us realised that it had grown back into one of the trunks higher up… suspect it won’t like that too much!
      Good luck with your birch and crabapple – hope the weather is a bit milder to get some of these jobs done without getting too cold! Sara

  3. hi Sara, glad you had such a good festive time and thanks for the reminder, i have a maple or two that need attention, and it is so good to see buds plumping up ready for the new season ahead. I am very much in favour of coppicing and pollarding because it provides such useful wood and extends the life of the tree.

    You have taught well as to how to cut a branch off without damaging the collar but i would have cut the birch branch at the top almost flush with the tree and then angled out and down to preserve the collar, doing this makes it look less stumpy, but this is just the way i do it…

    you certainly have been industrious and i take my hat off to you both!
    ps how are the mischievous felines doing?

    • Hi Mike, the buds are lovely indeed. I’m hoping to squeeze as many trees to coppice into our boundaries as I can, in time!

      You’re right, we were a little too over cautious in our first pruning cuts on the birch, we shall improve with experience! Hopefully it’s not too much of a stump to tax the tree, at least.

      Our cats are settling in wonderfully and are proving very adventurous and intrepid indeed – especially now that we don’t have to force tablets down them every evening as we have done for the first three weeks up until today! I hope to capture some of their antics when I have the chance and share them on here soon.

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