Willow Top: When Is Extreme Pruning OK?

This willow is what it looked like 15 months later, in September 2012. Photos courtesy of the author.

Flush cuts were still the norm when I began my arboricultural sojourn. In 1983, Dr. Alex Shigo spoke at my alma mater. He was just beginning to obtain notoriety for challenging the practices of the past with modern science.

So now I present to you a technique I will call “extreme heading back.” OK, I topped the tree, but not indiscriminately. I really wanted to call it entrenchment (a novel approach to managing veteran trees), but my methodology was far more primitive and abrupt.

I performed extreme heading on my fair share of willow (and other) trees early in my career. It was commonly done, and at that point, I did what I was told. Slap on some spurs and climb on up. Make a cut at the desired height, slather on the tree paint, beauty!

This willow was “pruned” in June 2011. Photos courtesy of the author.

As I became more “educated,” the pendulum swung the other way. I was proud of my righteous stance on tree toppers, and they’re heinous crimes. I refused to do any topping whatsoever. I knew stuff! Thirty years later, to quote Socrates, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

While this technique will rarely be confused with fine tree pruning, there are times when the situation leaves few options other than removal. The willow (Salix species) I present here had considerable dieback in the crown and a lean toward the house. The multi-stemmed structure indicates a previous rodeo with a saw-wielding partner. While the root anchorage still seemed solid, the hollow trunk supporting all the scaffolds was a real concern.

Willows are poor compartmentalizers. They are subject to cankers, leaf spots, rust, tar spot, aphids and leaf beetles, to name just a few afflictions. The wood can be brittle and break apart in storms. Leaves, twigs and branches are constantly falling. The root system is aggressive and can ravage underground pipe. The … wait, why not just cut the $#%* thing down?!

Willows are poor compartmentalizers. They are subject to cankers, leaf spots, rust, tar spot, aphids and leaf beetles, to name just a few afflictions. The wood can be brittle and break apart in storms. Leaves, twigs and branches are constantly falling. The root system is aggressive and can ravage underground pipe. The … wait, why not just cut the $#%* thing down?!

OK, the pros:

• Likes wet conditions and is an excellent choice for areas with standing water, but can withstand drought to some extent.

• Not too fussy about soils, though does not like a high pH.

• Fast grower, usually strong regrowth response to loss of parts.

• Aesthetics. Ah there’s the rub, maybe the deal maker. Imagine a hot, steaming summer day in the shade by the pond. The willow crown bends to the will of a gentle breeze, preceded by ripples on the water … but I digress. The point is, they’re nice to look at.

Though the trunk of this tree was fairly compromised, it was also incredibly cool. Twisted and gnarled, it was hollow right through, but did exhibit good health and wound-wood formation. If the risk could be removed, this tree might still provide benefits for years to come.

Referring to my trusty ANSI A300 pruning guidelines, specifications were derived.

The willow prior to pruning, in April 2011.

The Clients Goal: Retain the tree, reduce the risk and create a structure to promote a low, spreading crown.

Considerations: Willow tree, fast grower, strong likelihood of epicormic sprouting.

Pruning Objectives: Reduce risk, remove stems exhibiting disease or decay back to healthy wood, encourage lower epicormic sprouting.

The willow in September 2011, three months after pruning.

Pruning Method Options:

• Crown cleaning along with light reduction pruning.

• Crown cleaning with a combination of heading back and reduction pruning.

• Extreme heading back (client’s choice).

Specifications:

• Reduce stems to an approximate height of 10 to15 feet.

• Actual site of cuts will be based on the size of the cut (the smaller, the better), evidence of existing decay and the presence of live growth or nodal areas.

• Remove any remaining dead, broken or diseased parts.

A written proposal was provided to the client outlining the goals and objectives. We planned the work for mid-June. I felt the timing would be late enough to obtain some benefit from the current year’s growth, yet early enough to develop new shoots and promote some wound-closure activity.

Access to the tree with an aerial lift was possible and deemed the safest, most efficient way to do the job. We placed three-quarter- inch plywood on the turf and maneuvered the aerial lift into position, maintaining a safe distance from the root zone. The pruning was performed to specifications, no one got hurt and we didn’t break anything.

The willow trunk

Upon completion, we stood back to marvel at our handiwork. Woof. Had we not been in a rural area, I would have been inclined to cover our signage and don paper-bag headgear. A younger version of me would have railed at this obvious catastrophe. Topping! Heretics!

I do not expect to see “extreme heading back” as a sanctioned ANSI pruning method anytime soon. I do propose that some situations require unorthodox solutions, and that ANSI guidelines may still be applied.

OK, younger, smarter, more handsome version of me – ANSI A300 defines topping as: “Reduction of tree size using internodal cuts without regard to tree health or structural integrity.” In this case, the cuts were made just above the nodes, with full regard to health, structure and integrity. That’s right – extreme heading back.

We returned in September of that year to find a nice flush of growth emanating from all the remaining leaders, much to my relief. Another year later, the willow exhibits the type of crown envisioned. We will likely return soon to do some crown cleaning and thinning. The tree’s stewards are very happy with the results and will likely enjoy this specimen for years to come.

The willow in September 2012, once again providing shade to its owners.

I by no means wish to condone or promote this type of endeavor. I do not expect to see “extreme heading back” as a sanctioned ANSI pruning method anytime soon. I do propose that some situations require unorthodox solutions, and that ANSI guidelines may still be applied. You may just need to bend them a bit, like the willow.

Howard Gaffin, BCMA, RCA and Massachusetts Certified Arborist, is owner of Gaffin Tree & Landscaping, a TCIA member company located in Rowley, Massachusetts.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of TCI. The willow was removed at some point in the last two years, but “was still viable” at the time of its demise, according to the author.

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