Pruning is a much needed yet often misunderstood practice. This is perfectly understandable as most people look at a tree and wonder which branches need to be cut, why they need to be cut, and what time of year is appropriate to do so. Confusion is understandable, but a better grasp on a few key concepts will clear everything up.
Before you begin to look into anything else, it is important to understand the structure of a tree. For the purposes of pruning, we’ll focus on roots, and stems. The roots of a tree anchor it to the ground providing water and nutrition to the main stems of the tree. Roots and stems in any plant are a delicate balance. Cutting stem tissue will affect roots so don’t remove too much in a single session. A good rule of thumb is to not take more than 1/3 of the stem tissue present. The next concept is the natural shape of the tree you want to trim. Most have one dominant leader with supporting branches forming the canopy. In these cases, remove competing leaders to keep the canopy full and well-shaped. Other trees such as crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) are multi-stemmed with 2-3 codominant leaders. Prune away any challengers to your main leaders while keeping the “vase” shape for which these trees are known. With this in mind, it’s time to decide which stems to remove.
What to Cut
Safety and tree health are the focus as a homeowner decides which stems need pruning. When a branch is to be removed, make your cut It is important to keep the branch collar in mind when making your cuts. This collar is denoted as a ring of tissue at the connection of branch and trunk. Cut as closely as possible without disrupting this tissue. Any dead, diseased, and damaged branches are the first needing cut. They take resources from the healthy branches and are unsightly. Next, look for any crossing limbs. These scrape against one another as the wind blows and risk destroying bark tissue making the tree susceptible to disease. Focus next on structural issues or tree shape. Remove challenges to the leaders as outlined in the previous paragraph. Safety concerns will be your next focus. Look for bark inclusions which are weak connections indicated with a “V” shaped fork between limbs which may fail in high wind. If found, consult a certified arborist as pruning may not be your only option. Finally, eliminate lower limbs impeding walkways and any drooping from their own weight. This is also when species specific pruning is prudent to promote flowering or fruiting.
When to Cut
Now that we know what to prune, when is it prudent to do so? This cycle will vary based on quality of stock from the nursery, age of the tree, growth rate, and how prone they are to decay. In Florida, this is on average every three years. Keep in mind the “May rule” when considering what time of year to prune. Any plant blooming prior to May should be pruned once flowering has ceased, but no later than July. Any plant blooming after May should be pruned around February or March at the latest.
Pruning is an important practice for keeping your trees healthy and ensuring safety. With some knowledge you’ll find it is not the mystery you may have thought it to be. For more information on pruning, please see these IFAS documents, or contact local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.
January to February is the ideal time to plant trees. During dormancy, all the energy in a tree is in the root system. They will establish very quickly. In the spring, they will be ready to grow leaves. Planting and establishing trees is all about managing air and moisture in the soil. The exception is palms. They are not technically trees and should only be planted in the late spring and summer. Three of the most common causes of poor plant establishment or tree death are planting too deep, under watering, and over watering. If appropriate trees are planted at the right depth and they are irrigated properly, the trees will thrive for years to come. As simple as this sounds, problems often arise that lead to poor establishment or plant failure.
Following ten critical steps can ensure proper tree planting:
1. Look up for wires and lights. Make sure that the tree species’ mature size will not interfere with any utility lines.
2. Find the topmost root and treat root defects. After removing the pot from the tree, remove all excess soil on the top of the root ball, until a root that is similar in diameter to the lower branches is located. That is the topmost root. Look for any roots that encircle the rootball, particularly close to the trunk. Remove any roots that will strangle the trunk. Cut all encircling roots at the point they turn to encourage root branching. Then, rough up or shave off all the roots on the perimeter of the rootball. If the tree is balled and burlapped, use a metal skewer to locate the depth of the topmost root.
3. Dig shallow and wide hole. Using the corrected rootball as a gauge, dig the hole slightly less shallow that the rootball. Loosen the top six inches of soil around the entire rootball.
4. Carefully place tree in hole. Lower the tree into the hole slowly.
5. Position top root 1-2 inches above landscape soil. Make sure that the rootball is above the surrounding soil grade. If balled and burlapped, the nylon straps, metal pins, burlap on top of the rootball, and wire basket above the grade will need to be removed.
6. Straighten tree. Check the tree from two directions at 90% angles from each other.
7. Add and firm backfill soil. Tamp soil with fingers, not feet. Do not stomp on the soil. It will compact the soil and reduce the oxygen to the roots.
8. Add mulch. Apply a 2–3-inch layer of natural mulch out to the perimeter of the trees branches, or beyond if possible. However, there should be 1 inch or less mulch on top of the rootball. Do not allow mulch to touch the trunk.
9. Stake and prune if needed. If there is a strong steady wind, staking is necessary. Otherwise, don’t stake. Make sure to do all structural pruning is done at planting time. Establish a central leader and remove crossing branches. But do not remove the lower branches. Just reduce the length. The tree needs to bring food to the lower portion of the trunk to increase the diameter.
10. Water the tree. Don’t walk away until the tree has been watered. Apply at least ½ gallon. The tree will need to be watered twice a week for 20-30 weeks. The larger the tree, the more water needed at each event. However, if the water doesn’t perk in within a few minutes, reduce the amount being applied. Overwatering can be as harmful as underwatering.
Humans love to measure and rank things. Whether it’s the tallest, the widest, or the most of something, we want to know about it, rank it, and, of course, brag about it if it’s ours. The biggest pumpkin, cheeseburger, truck tires, and so on. Gardeners and plant people are no exception. Actually, when you combine the pride of something you’ve grown with some type of measurement or rank of grandeur, it drives even more competition. Hence, fairs! So, it’s no surprise that there is an official rank of largest tree for each state. These large specimens are known as “Champion Trees” and every landowner I know of would love to have one on their property.
The idea of recognizing Champion Trees goes back nearly a century when the American Forestry Association, now known simply as American Forests, launched a campaign to engage the public in forestry activities. To tap into our desire to rank things and compete, the campaign encouraged a competition to find the largest specimens of selected trees. American Forests still maintains a registry of the national Champion Trees and their current goal of the program is to help people identify tree biodiversity and foster a desire to preserve and protect trees.
In Florida, the Division of Forestry (DOF), part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), maintains a statewide registry of these Champion Trees. According to FDACS’s Florida Champion Trees website, the largest native tree in the state is a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) with a trunk measuring 537 inches in circumference (nearly 15 feet wide), stands 101 feet tall, and has a crown spread of 49 feet. That’s a big ol’ cypress tree! Just in case you were wondering, the smallest Champion Tree is a corkwood (Leitneria floridana) with a trunk measuring nine inches in circumference (almost three feet in diameter), 17 feet tall, and a crown spread of eight feet. That is a big ol’ corkwood!
Now comes the exciting part. The Florida Champion Trees website (https://www.fdacs.gov/Forest-Wildfire/Our-Forests/Florida-Champion-Trees) has the entire list of trees for you to peruse and includes a list of trees that are yet to have a champion specimen designated. There is a nomination form that, when submitted, will prompt a visit by a County Forester with DOF who will confirm the tree’s measurements. If all checks out, your tree could be a champion!
The shorter days and cooler temperatures of autumn bring on changes in our shrubs and trees.
Most people expect to see changes in leaf color in deciduous trees and shrubs during fall. But some people become concerned when the leaves on certain evergreen plants begin to turn yellow with the change in the seasons. For many plants this is normal.
Azaleas may lose a few leaves now. These are the older leaves on the branches near the center of the plant. There is no need for alarm by the loss of a few older azalea leaves from now until spring. However, if the younger leaves, those nearest the tip of the shoot, turn yellow or brown there is cause for concern. Poor drainage, lack of water or alkaline soils may cause this condition. Be sure to keep azaleas and other ornamental plants well-watered during dry weather that may occur from now through spring.
Other plants such as gardenias, hollies and camellias may have yellowing leaves now. But as with azaleas, these are the older leaves on the stem near the center of the plant. The mature leaves will drop from the plant from now until spring. This is only the normal aging of older leaves. However, be careful to not confuse this normal process with spider mites, scale, lace bugs, nutrient deficiencies, poor growing conditions or salt injury. Just keep in mind that this normal change in leaf color and leaf drop occurs on the older leaves generally during cooler weather – it’s a seasonal change.
The leaves of sycamore trees have changed from green to brown by now. Although the sycamore is a deciduous tree, this phenomenon may not be caused by a change in day length or temperature alone. This change in leaf color in sycamores can begin in late summer. Many times, it is the result of sycamore lace bugs feeding on the leaves. By the time the damage is visible, there is little that can be done to correct the problem. However, this problem will take care of itself since sycamore trees will soon be dropping their leaves.
We do have some trees that exhibit beautiful fall foliage this time of year. A few to consider include hickory and gingko for their bright yellow fall foliage, black gum for its early display of brilliant red, purple or orange leaves and Chinese pistache for its late reddish-orange fall show. There are plenty of other good trees to consider for fall color here in North Florida such as dogwood, crape myrtle, Florida maple, sourwood, shumard oak and the list could continue.
Several times each month I am diagnosing shrub and tree problems in Escambia County that are related to the same issue, improper planting. Symptoms of this problem can be slow growth, leaf browning, and dieback. Sometimes under stressful weather conditions like drought, plants completely die.
This is a difficult sight for homeowners who have invested time and money in a tree or shrub to enhance the landscape. In some cases, the planting issues can be fixed but there are other times when a new plant will need to be installed.
The good news for homeowners is that this is a completely preventable issue. The University of Florida has excellent publications with photos about installing and caring for trees and shrubs. My Panhandle colleagues and I have also shared numerous articles and videos on proper plant installation.
Care must be taken during installation to set your plant at the correct depth. Even if a landscaper or nursery is installing the plant for you, check their work. Make sure the rootball is cut or sliced, it is not set below grade, that any straps holding the rootball are cut after it is set, and proper backfilling occurs without soil over the top of the rootball.
You don’t want to find out later in the season or even year’s later that your plant declined just because of planting problems.
The interest and use of native plants in the landscape in Florida and the southeastern U.S. has increased significantly over the last 20 plus years. There are many benefits for including them in our landscapes including creating a wider biodiversity and enjoying the multitude of support for butterflies, wildlife, and unique color displays.
Choosing the plant species that works in landscape sites requires a few considerations like being adaptable to the site conditions, soil type and preparation, understanding the plant establishment needs, and finding plants regionally to your area.
Develop a landscape plan that includes addressing soil and site preparation as many landscape sites are altered during the construction phase with the soil being drastically changed. In Florida many sites need soil backfill to raise the elevation for buildings, drive or parking areas to remain above flood challenges. Choosing the right plant for the right place will need to include understanding the plants’ growing environments. Do the plants perform best in well-drained drier areas or moister situations with slight flooding tolerances? Native plants have acclimated to specific soil settings over thousands of years. When selecting the plants for your landscape, perform a site analysis with soil texture, drainage, soil pH, hours of direct intense sun or shade in the growing season, air circulation in the growing area, and growing space available. Doing your homework first can save a lot of money and frustration later. Visit the local nurseries to see plant availability. Just remember many landscape settings do not always match the natural habitats where many of these plants are established in nature.
Soil amendments will likely be needed to improve the soil conditions and provide optimal plant establishment and performance. Most often the soil that brought in is sandy and nutrient poor with little to no organic matter. In addition, the soils are compacted by heavy equipment during the construction phase. These factors can create native plant challenges leading to poor growth and shortened plant life spans. When the soils have been addressed according to plant needs the selected plants can be placed and the fun part begins by following the landscape plan.
With the landscape conditions likely altered with amendments, choose plants that can establish and grow successfully in these often more difficult conditions. Florida red maples (Acer rubrum), Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) and Sand Live Oaks (Quercus geminate) all can provide shade areas for future plantings. Butterflies attach to and feed on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Butterfly weed does well in well-drained sandy soils and swamp milkweed likes it moist. These are just a few of the many plants out there to consider. Just remember to visit your local nurseries and talk with them about native plants and availability. Enjoy your gardening adventure.