Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on March 1, 1969.
THE MAPLES outside my window catch my eye more in winter than perhaps at any other season. Especially after a snowfall when each smooth brown branch is etched with white, patiently waiting for the wind to spring it free. As I look through these trees toward the distant hills, their lines weave a pattern that gives proportion to distance. And from a distance they frame my house and break its lines, pleasantly so, and let this structure made by man have a place to be.
How the winter birds love these maples. Nearly all day they visit their branches and rough furrowed trunk inspecting them carefully. Downy and hairy woodpeckers, white and red-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, and brown creepers check bark crevasses every day and harvest such insect life as may have escaped an earlier canvass.
Late winter and early spring is a good time to get out the pruning saw and assist Mother Nature in removing dead wood. Not only the appearance but the health of a tree can be improved by proper pruning. In addition there is always the possibility that a storm-weakened limb might fall and hurt someone or cause damage to property. Of all tree maintenance, tree pruning is perhaps the most important. As a general rule you should start pruning a tree at its top and work downward. Be sure to remove all dead, diseased and broken limbs. Check, too, for “limb-rub,” and where two branches rub together cut one of them back. Such places make easy access to harmful bacteria which can cause future trouble.
Your pruning cuts should be clean, without frayed edges or ripped bark. Wounds larger than one inch in diameter should be treated with a proper dressing to prevent the entrance of diseases. Probably the most popular dressing is made up of an asphalt mix. A water-asphalt emulsion may be applied directly to both wet and dry surfaces providing the temperature is above freezing.
Small wounds on evergreens may be protected by smearing the resin exuding from the cuts over the surface of the wound. Larger wounds should be treated as you would hard wood. The experts tell me that regular house paint is not good for this purpose. The bark tissues of young sugar maples and other species can be damaged by certain oily compounds commonly found in house paints. Excessive use of house paint could result in the death of your trees. As a word of precaution, young sugar maples and birches should not be pruned in the spring because they tend toward excessive “bleeding.” This is not only unsightly but may prove injurious.
Large branches may be a problem. In pruning them I have found that it is best to make three cuts. A single top-side saw cut is most apt to result in torn stripped bark below the cut. I make my first cut on the upper side of the branch a little farther out from the trunk than the under cut. I keep sawing until the branch falls. As you can see, the bark on the underside of the limb can’t be stripped by the falling branch. The third cut is made simply to remove the stub as close to the main trunk as possible.
There is another problem that many of us have with trees caused by such things as lawnmowers, automobiles, trucks or construction equipment. This is barking or bruising, and these wounds should be tended to as soon as possible. The wound should be scraped clean to expose the sapwood and traced back to uninjured bark with a sharp knife or wood chisel. The wound should be cut in the form of an ellipse or football-shaped, pointed at the top and bottom, even if this involves cutting into healthy tissue. This shape wound helps the sap past the wound and promotes healing. The cut edges should be painted with orange shellac and a wound dressing applied.
Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at firstname.lastname@example.org.