Advice on pruning sugar maple

corkball(4)February 2, 2013

I have a sugar maple that is about 20' tall. I am worried that a number of lateral branches are at very shallow angles to the main trunk. I've had larger maples that have these branches ripped off in storms and peel back swathes of bark on the main trunk.... soooo....

Advice on pruning:
1) When? Because they bleed profusely in the spring, I have hear people say late fall/early winter, june, and some just say do in later winter ANYWAY.

2) How much? Is it necessary? (see picture). I would like to take of at least a couple of lower branches because they are in the way while mowing, but they extend up much of the tree and it might look funny. Also there is no clearly dominant leader.

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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Personally I'd only make one cut...

Remove one of the those co-doms forming the y. Its tough to say which one since you'd really need to be there in person with a 360 degree view and know which are the premium views.

Since it will be a larger wound I would not prune it until early June, timing could depend on when spring hits.

Next year in fall or June you can select the leader and do some subordinate pruning.

Just don't let another year go by with leaving that co-dom. Its about 3-5 years past due.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 5:40PM
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jimbobfeeny(5a IN)

Hmm... I wouldn't prune right now - Around here, anyways, the maple sap is already starting to run. I usually figure Autumn is the best time to prune maples.

Definitely, one of those co-dominant leaders needs to be removed. Personally, I would pick the one that seems the weakest - It isn't easy to make pruning decisions based on a picture in a computer screen.

Some (most, actually) of those lower branches are at too tight of angles - However, the lower branches on a tree feed further development of the crown, so I'd be a little hesitant to cut off too many of the lower branches at once.

How's about a few more pictures, from different angles?

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 7:56AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

ignore them.. lol ..

you said: I would like to take of at least a couple of lower branches because they are in the way while mowing


then take another pic.. and we can go from there ...

frankly.. i cut trees when they piss me off ... like while mowing.. i dont care about timing.. and bleeding is irrelevant to me.. crimminey.. its a sugar maple.. dont peeps make them bleed on purpose????? .. it actually is a way for the tree to clean out the wound ... BUT!!! .. i would defer if one of the arborist-types suggest a more specific timing ...

SAFETY is the issue.. be done with those ...

i see power lines.. optical delusion.. or how close to the tree .. now might be a great time to remove some branches headed off in that direction ...

i dont know what to tell you on the tri-leader situation.. i would bet a buck .. it was topped to expand the canopy for a better looking tree at point of sale ... and the response was 3 leaders.. but with those crotch angles .. i always struggle as to how to get rid of them ... usually deferring to leaving it be ...

good luck


    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 9:26AM
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LOL.. you guys crack me up!

OK, I will take a whack at it.. pun intended.

Ken - yes there are power lines but they are WAY far away - no issues there.

Sounds like consensus is try to suss out the leader. I will see what I can do about that later in the season. One reason I had asked is I often see LARGE street tree maples with weak or no leader. Example:
and I was wondering if that is normal? Forest sugars are way more likely to grow like a telephone pole.

jimbob and whaas - I could post more pictures, but you will have the same issue from any direction - there are weird angles and no clear choices in any direction - it reminds me of a dwarf magnolia - no GREAT choices...

Thanks for your responses!

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 9:42AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

I often see LARGE street tree maples with weak or no leader. Example

==>> so what ... you some kind of anal retentive tree freak ... lol

as to that pic.. when its leafed out.. it doenst show ...

forest trees .. when competing.. have to go skyward.. to get the sun.. hence telephone poles ...

the pic you show.. is by itself in a field.. its maximizing its canopy the easiest way it can ... and may have been mowed over once or twice as a seedling .. who knows ...

BTW.. under where you type is a box that says: Optional Link URL .. and that is where you paste your link.. and then add some tricky word like LINK.. in the second box.. and it makes a click-able link ...

frankly.. whether or not you are going to have structure problems in 35 to 100 years.. is a nice discussion.. but really now.. will you be around to worry about it??? ...

good luck


ps: i have tried to 'fix' those type of problems.. and have usually made bad cuts.. and the next thing you know.. the one i left breaks off in the next wind storm ... these days.. i would tend toward ignoring it ... [did you guys notice.. i helped w/o showing my hatred of maples.. lol.. oops.. i just did .. lol]

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 11:28AM
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arktrees(6b NW Arkansas)

IMHO, you hit upon the root problem. These are forest trees, that are not growing in the native environment with lots of competition to force upward growth. This goes for maples, oaks, and most everything else. There are some exceptions. Those trees that are typically found in open woodland, or small groups or isolated often naturally grow int he manner we would like (Burr Oak comes to mind as they are open found in the prairie transition zone). But this doesn't help you as to what to do with your tree.

Beyond what has already been said, I can only offer one tidbit. I agree do what you can to improve the circumstances, but also look at the very old trees around, and often if you look carefully, you will see that they had these very same issues, and are still around. And by this I mean species like Sugar Maple that are known to be strong long lived. So don't worry excessively. Just my $0.02.

EDIT: I see Ken said much the same while I was typing. I agree with Ken, are you going to be around to worry about it? I have asked many people this same question many times. The other part of that to remember, whatever tree it is, whatever species, it's going to hit the ground sooner or later anyway.


This post was edited by arktrees on Sun, Feb 3, 13 at 11:38

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 11:34AM
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Yeah, yup, and yes. That's a mind-reading reference folks, for any that got into card tricks. Anyway, timing of pruning is a subject offering much confusion. I will only say this; The sap which exudes from genera like maples is of no serious consequence. Do not use that factor in making your decision.

The best overall time for the bulk of woody plant pruning is late winter/early spring, but even this is not crucial. Only two times of year are not good for pruning-spring, when the buds are swelling and/or the leaves are expanding, and fall, when the leaves are falling from the trees. Any other time can work.

As to pruning methodology, your tree looks very typical of sugar maples grown in nurseries. Some of the stuff Ken said very likely applies. In any case, I'd strongly suggest you go to the U of FL website, dig around until you find Ed Gilman's stuff (Horticulture) and learn about "subordination pruning". You seem to have a head for understanding the issues and if you comprehend this material, you will always know what to do or not do to your trees going forward. BTW, there are other sources for this information but that's just the one that I can think of off the top of my head, plus Ed did much of the initial and ongoing work in this area.


    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 1:30PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

The way I look at is if you can easily make a cut to improve the longevity of the tree then do it. Its clearly an equal growth leader with a very tight crotch angle that will develop included bark. At the end of the day do you want to admire the winter silhouette of tree 1 or tree 2 in the link you provided? If left alone it likely would be fine for many years to come but I vote for tree 2. Don't be that guy that leaves it just because.

As for priority if it really was a safety concern then remove the lower branches. We shouldn't have to tell you that though. Mostly because we don't know if you're 5'4 pushing a walk behind or 6'5 cruising on a riding mower.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 1:40PM
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Two things: You want to improve this tree's structure, and while typical of its species as grown in nurseries, the structure could stand a little improvement. Keep in mind SM is a pretty structurally sound tree most of the time, even when there are some narrow branch angles, etc. Turning some of those competing leaders into branches is basically what you want to do. Head back all the non-selected leaders to an outward-facing branchlet, if possible. Leave the one you've selected to be the leader alone, unless there's something broken on it.

In time, and through periodic applications of this same type of pruning, the tree will often begin to have a better structure with one main leader. This is not something to carry out throughout the tree's life. It's just to extend the period of time that it has a single leader for a few more years.

The second thing is "raising up"-pruning lower branches. This is completely optional-the tree doesn't need it. But you may well need it, as would I if it was in my yard. There's nothing wrong with removing lower branches. Do it gradually, just one or a few each year, and observe the correct technique in removing these limbs.


    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 5:17PM
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I worked on one of these today myself, except mine is the 'Southern Sugar Maple'. Seems these trees naturally would rather be forest trees, when they're grown out in the open they just grow every which way. Mine seemed very bushy even though it's now over 12ft tall, so I did quite a bit of thinning.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 8:27PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

Only two times of year are not good for pruning-spring, when the buds are swelling and/or the leaves are expanding, and fall, when the leaves are falling from the trees.

==>> so +om .. do you agree with the rephrase:

in spring its putting out its food making machines.. its leaves.. DONT STRESS IT .. while its doing this job ...

and in fall.. its moving all the food down into the root system for storing it for winter and next spring.. SO DONT STRESS IT ... while its doing this job ...

otherwise go for it???


one thing +om made me focus on.. with oaks.. is bug season.. and certain bugs as a vector for disease spreading ... so that would be a third time not to prune ... but no one has brought that up with this maple ...


    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 9:12AM
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Right on, Ken. Plus, in the spring example, disease pressure is higher, for those cases where such concern exists. And then yes, for special cases, namely oaks and elms, insect vectors of disease enjoy landing on newly wounded wood, whether from wind event or pruning saw! So yes, that would be the third case, for those genera where it matters.


    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 12:40PM
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I like the subordination pruning option. I have a few really bad choices to make, and I think that could really help. There is one bottom branch that extends at a very shallow angle 2/3rds of the way to the top on the SW side - bad for scalding, which this tree has had (note the wrap)

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 4:37PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

never heard of a branch scalding.. like the trunk might ...

i bet the warming of the soil adds to such with the trunk at ground level ...


    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 6:55PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

BTW .. you are way over thinking a maple ...

it is a tree.. you can basically plant and forget about for 50 years or so.

unless you want to garden under it ... then it will p.o. you off inside 10 years ...

there are things you MIGHT do.. there probably isnt much you HAVE TO DO ...

if you see the difference ...


ps: there are things we try to plan for.. like that 10 or 20 year storm.. but my fall back to that eventuality is.. something along the lines of.. you are going to have a lot of other problems due to that storm.. than this piddly tree.. like your roof flying down the road .. at which point.. whether that leader fails isnt really going to be a priority .... great conversation topic though ...

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 7:32AM
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A maple (red, I think) probably 25 feet or so tall out front in the yard of the home we bought a couple of years back, has an issue like you may be concerned yours will have.

Hold your arm & hand vertically, pointing up. Stick 2 fingers (side-by-side) up. Okay, you've got 2 leaders with a fairly narrow crotch angle.

Before we bought the house, I believe a nearby tornado damaged the roof and badly mutilated another red maple.

This one, though had a big split down between those 2 leaders, Maybe 2 or 3 feet? And by the time we moved in, the tree was 'healing' - the edges were curling around' to enclose the injury, on both leaders where they'd split apart.

What a mess. I figured that when they grew together they'd made a 'bowl,' for water & rotten detritus to gather in and cause problems.

I got on a ladder & cut one of them off, but it wasn't practical to do it all the way down at the bottom of the split. But the tree would've looked stupid with the top 'leader' section chopped off.

So while I'm not telling you what to do with yours, I am saying 2+ leaders with fairly narrow crotch angles can cause some interesting problems down the road.


    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 9:12PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Personally I strongly hold the position to remove it. Not even remotely close to the fence on this one.

I had to remove one just like yours on a freeman maple. Looked crappy for 2 years. Now it looks like...well a specimen tree.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 10:57PM
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