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Tree doctor.

Q. I'm trying to find out the best time to prune pine trees but am getting varying and conflicting advice. Is it when the trees are dormant and sap isn't flowing, when they're in active growth so the wounds can heal, or in spring during the transition to active growth so the pruning will stimulate stronger growth? Also, most agree that applying a foreign material to seal the wound is no longer recommended. I've gotten too much information to know what is best

David Rasch Santa Fe, New Mexico

A. As a general rule, pruning during the dormant season is best, but in most cases literature that advises that is aimed at hardwoods, not conifers. After reviewing what I could find, it seems to me the "dormant season" advice is applicable to conifers, too, at least concerning pruning limbs from existing trees. Dormant-season cutting minimizes sap or pitch flow and would attract the least activity by insects. When a tree is being pruned for shape, such as a Christmas tree, the objective is to throttle back annual limb growth, and the recommendation is to cut short the "candles" of new growth as they start to harden off, but before the new needles are fully formed. This window for new growth pruning will usually be in late spring. Don't apply paint or other sealant on pruning wounds. The tree will "wall off" the exposed tissue area on its own, to prevent any internal spread of infections.

Q. I have two large sugar maples in my yard in Queens, New York. When is the best time of year to prune same of their branches?

John Kessler Via e-mail

A. Again, as a rule of thumb, the best time to prune trees is during their dormant season. For maples, this means from first heavy frost to late winter. Sugar maples' sap seems to start rising in early February, so I would recommend pruning in December or January. Branches should be cut just outside the "ring" of swollen tissue around their base, but not damaging that ring of tissue, as that is what will grow the callus to eventually cover the wound. Be sure any wounds easily drain any rainwater.

Q. The tip of our spruce broke off during the winter and was buried in snow and remained green. I would have tried "splinting" it back on but cannot reach the top of the tree. I made a fresh cut on the "trunk" of the tip and planted it in good soil in our back yard about a week ago. It is being watered regularly. Any chance this will grow into o new tree? Will the main tree, about 20 feet high, 10 years old, continue growing?

Louis Sotis Waltham, Massachusetts

A. There's not much chance of the treetop rooting itself into a new tree, but watch it for a while, and if doesn't turn brown, maybe it will. Be prepared for disappointment, though. Splinting it back on the tree would also be unlikely to succeed. Now for the good news: Your tree, without its tip, will do just fine. Mother Nature faces this sort of problem frequently. As new growth starts in the spring, a side shoot or bud will take over the newly available sunlight from above and assume the position of new leader. There will be an offset bend in the trunk at this point, but if you are not trying to raise a high quality sawlog, this is of limited importance. In terms of total amount of wood produced this year or next, the loss of the leader will be hardly noticeable.

Q. When is the best time to plant a spruce tree? I'm getting one from the side of the highway and would like to know when is a good time to do this. Would I also take some of the dirt from that spot?

Stephanie Cousins Via email

A. As a rule of thumb, the best time to transplant any tree is during its dormant season, the winter months. However, this is not always possible, especially with trees to be saved along road or other construction areas. The bigger the tree, the harder to transplant it, but yes, disturb the roots as little as possible. Get as much dirt with the tree as you can safely handle. More than 90 percent of a tree's roots are in the top foot of ground, so digging a tree should leave a cone-shaped hole. Prepare the planting spot with a similarly shaped hole, so the tree, with its root ball, can be slipped into its new home with a minimum of disturbance. Water heavily for a while to be sure the soil is thoroughly settled around the root ball in the new site and no air pockets are left.

Q. My daughter was given a green stick at school and told that she could plant it. I placed it in water and set it in filtered sunlight. It has grown "furry" roots and sprouted leaves from the buds along the bark. How can I safely plant it in the dirt without shocking the roots?

Molly M. Cantrell Via email

A. Assuming the "green stick" is a cutting from some sort of hybrid poplar or similar species, the planting should not be too difficult. Dig a small hole where the planting is to be, and use the loose dirt to gently surround the stick as you refill the hole around it. Plant it about as deep as the "water-line" on the cutting, or perhaps a bit deeper. Water thoroughly to help in settling the loose soil particles around the rootlets, and keep the planting well watered while it gets started.

Have a question for the Tree Doctor? E-mail Howard at or write c/o American Forests magazine, PO Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013.
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Author:Burnett, Howard
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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