Some problems have no solution. All we can do is to share the
pain and ease it a bit with laughter. For instance, whyizzit
...we're so wowed by plant bushiness?
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Growers say they absolutely must pinch shrubs to make them
chubby, or they will not sell. It's a classic example of the hidden
consequences of impatience because this answer serves a short term
need -- making the sale -- while ruining the plants' long term
chance for beauty.
Arborvitae as poster child
Arborvitaes are the case in point. An ice storm put a load on
this arborvitae's trunks (right) and they splayed outward.
The ice is gone now and the sap's risen but the trunks have not
come back up. We'll fix that by propping the bent limbs.
Prop, don't tie
It may seem logical to tie branches like this together for
mutual support but don't do that if you can prop, instead.
Any cord strong enough to hold these limbs together is probably
not going to disintegrate in a year. Yet in a year the branches
gain appreciably in girth and can be girdled by the ties -- cut off
as if pruned. Even if the cord or wire is looped on just one side
of the trunk, the amount of pressure it exerts can kill that side
of that limb.
Threading the tie through tubing does not help, except perhaps
to prevent chafing. The pressure is just as intense and is still
exerted along a narrow line through the tube.
If tying is necessary, think of it as belting. Use material that
can distribute the pressure such as the straps used to make seat
belts or tow lines. In a pinch we used nylon stockings spread wide.
Even then, make the belting temporary or consult an arborist to
have the tree cabled.
Right: This arb is propped with a forked branch we saved
while pruning other trees. The prop is marked with blue to help you
First make some props.
It's spring so we're doing a lot
of pruning, including removal
of junk trees along a property
line. So we don't have to build
props from lumber, as is some-
times done. We have large
branches with sturdy forks to
Left: We've trimmed this
buckthorn branch to end in a
How long a prop should be is hard to guess, at first. We start
with props as tall as the splayed plant would be if it was upright.
If you enlarged the image at the top of this page you saw this
particular prop -- an arrow points to where it's leaning against
Below, right: We push the prop branch's base into the
ground, lean its top into the center of the arb, and position the
arb trunk in the crutch.
Sometimes we can arrange the prop so the bent branch stays put
on its own. Sometimes we tie it in place. We tie loosely; we don't
want to immobilize the limb since swaying wood builds strength. We
use hemp that will rot away in a year or less.
These props only have to remain in position until new cells
growing in the arb trunk become woody. A prop is temporary but we
usually view it as a year-long fixture. It's simple to check if
it's still supporting weight. Sometimes we remove one after six
months, another may be necessary for 18 months or two years.
Below: So here's that arb with one side propped.
Now before we prop any more limbs we're going to prune to
leave the shrub
with just one leader.
Pruning: What makes a balanced arborvitae
We aren't willing to prop these plants every time winter weighs
heavy. So we're also going to prune to keep this from happening
Pruning might not come first to mind as a solution but it not
only answers in this case, it does so with a full-circle rightness.
Pruning by the grower to make the plant look bushy is one of the
main reasons the tree can't right itself now, and pruning can
Arborvitaes are trees; one trunk can serve for a lifetime. They
happen to tolerate pruning (can remain healthy even when repeatedly
cut back) so they make fine hedges. However, right now forget the
hedge. Imagine an arb growing as a tree with just one trunk. In
that situation with even light on all sides, the plant's weight is
evenly distributed. Every face has about the same amount of wood
and foliage. If something bends the trunk, it has a good chance of
regaining its old orientation once the weight is gone.
However, that balance changes if the tree develops multiple
trunks -- perhaps when its original trunk is injured, browsed or
pruned. Each trunk has an interior, shaded side and a side that
receives more light. More foliage and branches grow on one side.
Each trunk is more likely to be overbalanced by a snow load and is
more likely to remain bent to the side with most foliage even after
the snow is gone.
Cuts that un-do past pinches
We know growers pinch arbs and we've faced the consequences, so
when we buy we look for least-pinched arbs. (Which means starting
smaller, usually!) We also un-do the results of the pinch as soon
as we can. That is what we're doing now, pruning to give one trunk
dominance over the others, so it can take off, regain natural
balance and give the tree the chance to right itself after bad
We assess the competing trunks and select one that still
has green, leafy twigs along the face that was shaded by other
trunks. Those are essential, even if very tiny. Without those, the
trunk will not be able to develop new branches along that side.
Right: We haven't propped the other splayed trunks because
we'll be cutting them short and they probably won't need support,
then. We aim to leave the trunk we've already propped in a
situation where it is tallest so it will become dominant and the
tree will have a single, balanced trunk from here on up.
Below, left: We cut out one of a pair of competing trunks on
the propped side of this arb...
Above, right: ...and we cut all the other trunks
shorter. All that we cut is laying on the
ground. Sometimes we can remove just one competitor to
make a new leader but what you see here is more often the
Done and quickly recovered
Now the arb is propped upright and pruned to one leader. No more
propping is necessary.
Here's a second arb before and after the same prop-and prune
If the arbs' symmetry seems off, keep in mind that's a temporary
situation. The plants respond quickly in spring with growth from
all parts in the light.
Below: Here are these two plants three months later, in
August of the same year. The arrow points out a gap that's already
filled with new foliage.
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