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Pruning With Purpose

Have Your Trees Branched Out? It Could Be Time to Take a Little Off the Top (and Middle)

September 05, 1998|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a giant in your yard. Each day it gets a little bigger and hungrier until eventually it threatens to overtake your property. But unlike the giants in fairy tales, this one is going to take more than a beanstalk to get rid of. And you're probably not willing to part with it anyway.

It's your tree, and while you probably don't think about it half the time--except in the summer when it shades your house and the fall when its leaves fill your trash--it's going to need some TLC, probably sooner rather than later.

Autumn is traditionally tree pruning time in Southern California, when homeowners look up into the branches while raking leaves and wonder how their trees got so big.

"In the fall we usually get the Santa Ana winds blowing through, and people start getting worried that a branch will go flying through a window," says Ed Archibald of V&E Tree Service in Orange. "Fall and winter are good times for pruning deciduous trees, or those that lose their leaves in autumn, and citrus trees, because their sap is down."

Southern California yards are a virtual arboretum of trees from around the world that have taken to our mild climate. You can find pines and conifers of all types, as well as palms, sycamores, maples and others.

There are the trees we love, like a stately old oak, and the ones we love to hate, like a tall, gangly eucalyptus.

"Eucalyptus trees are messy, and many people don't like them, which is interesting because there are so many of them," Archibald says. "They're good accent trees best planted in areas where they can be free to grow. But they must be trimmed at least every two years."

Eucalyptus trees are susceptible to limb drop, which is a dangerous hazard in warm weather. Heat pulls the sap and moisture up into the trees until finally, a limb that previously looked just fine suddenly breaks off.

"Eucalyptus wood is very heavy, and you will be hurt by it if it falls on you," he says.

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Some trees need annual trimming because they grow so quickly. "Common species like ficus, pepper trees and carrotwood need maintenance once a year to keep them in check," says Bill Jacob of Bill's Tree Service in Yorba Linda. "Pines, sycamores and ash trees can go for longer periods between prunings."

Palms primarily require the cutting off of dead fronds. Working on a palm, especially one that hasn't been maintained, is never an enjoyable job for a trimmer.

"The large date palms have wide, thick thorns that can really jab you if you're not careful," Jacob says.

Tree trimming is tricky, hazardous and expensive. A good trimmer tries to thin the branches, letting more light through, while allowing the tree to conform to its natural shape.

"It's a matter of thinning them out in the middle and then tipping them back," Jacob says. "This means shaping them a little on the top so they don't take over the yard."

While tipping gives the tree a needed trim, watch out for the pruner who suggests topping. This is the equivalent of butchery, where large limbs are sawed off without any thought as to how the tree will grow in the years ahead.

Selecting a trimming service can be as daunting as climbing a 50-foot oak. There are numerous individuals and companies that claim to have tree trimming expertise, which could mean that they're certified arborists and licensed contractors, or that they have a ladder and some saws.

"There are a lot of people out there who think they know what they're doing and they don't," says Frank Angull of Arborwest Associates in Orange.

Tree trimmers generally charge by the hour for their services, since each tree and location usually has its own unique obstacles. "Until you see the tree you don't know what kind of equipment you'll need," Archibald says. "Is it close to the house or other structures? Has it been well maintained in the past? Will a crane be needed? These are all factored into the estimate."

Rates can vary widely, from $25 to $60 per hour, but buyer beware is the key to shopping for trimmers. "Check to see if they have a contractors license and call the state board to see if it's valid," Angull says. "Do they have insurance? The minimum for them to carry is $1 million, but a better firm will carry more. These are things that are part of the cost, but don't forget that trimming involves working way up in the air. People and property can get damaged."

Trimmers have horror stories of falls and near spills, cuts from sharp thorns and even encounters with nasty tree rats. "A good trimmer will use whatever equipment is necessary to make the job as safe as possible," Archibald says. "Accidents happen, but you try to minimize risk as much as you can."

Most trees, especially smaller ones, are trimmed by the homeowner. If your tree pruning experience is limited, it's helpful to know a little about how a professional approaches a tree.

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