By David Yost, Plant Specialist
The days are short. It’s cold outside. And there’s not much opportunity to enjoy gardening. So when a good friend and customer asked me to help prune a specimen weeping spruce tree, I jumped at the chance.
To fully appreciate this story, you’ll need to know the history of this unique, little specimen tree, which was purchased on impulse and planted about six to eight years ago. It’s a weeping Norway spruce grafted together with a weeping Colorado blue spruce. Imagine something roughly the shape of an umbrella that’s half green and half blue. Being such a cute little thing, it was planted near the front entrance, creating a focal point.
Three years ago, I offered to prune the tree. The green half was dominating the blue half and it was outgrowing the planting area. After pruning the tree, the color balance was restored and it was brought back into proportion. From that day on, I somehow became responsible for this tree.
Two years ago, I was informed that our tree needed to be pruned again. For various reasons that all add up to procrastination, I didn’t get out to prune the tree. Another year went by and I was reminded again that our tree was “going Jurassic,” which meant it was getting way out of control.
I promised to take care of it this winter. Once I saw the tree, I knew it was going to be trouble. The tree had grown so large that it was now blocking the living room windows, sticking out onto the sidewalk and about to reach into the gutters.
The problem in pruning conifers, such as this spruce, is that all new growth occurs at the tips of the branch. So if you cut back into the old, woody parts of the plant, it can result in creating a bald spot that won’t fill in for many years. This plant isn’t forgiving like hollies or laurels that will regenerate from wherever the cuts are made. This tree needed to be drastically reduced in size and I was afraid this would destroy its form, leaving big gaps and bald spots.
Transplanting wasn’t an option because of the risk to the tree and possible damage to the surrounding landscape. Plus, there was no where else to plant it. In some ways, removal made the best sense, but there was too much emotional attachment to even suggest this option. The tree now had a name: “Jurassic.”
I started pruning. My approach was to take small steps. You only get one chance with a pruning cut, so I like to take a bit at a time and step back frequently to evaluate the progress. I really enjoy pruning. It draws on your knowledge of plants and trying to direct future growth while maintaining and enhancing the natural form of the particular tree or shrub. The results are immediate and hopefully gratifying.
I knew the height needed to be significantly lower and taking the central leader would permanently alter its form. But it had to be done. So little by little, I began cutting it down to size. The cuts need to be just above a lateral branch and that branch needs to be going in a desirable direction. Eventually we got it down to a reasonable height, and there was not much tree left behind.
I thought this was going to become a gardening disaster. But it turned out better than I ever expected. Before and after pictures show how severely this tree was pruned. I wouldn’t typically recommend pruning this severely, but the other choice was removal. In the end, this will allow the tree to remain for a few more years and the spring flush of growth will help fill in some of the bare spots.
Yes, this tree is too big for the space and will ultimately need to be replaced. But for now, I’ll call it a success!