Eastern Hemlock / Tsuga canadensis

bev_w(6a)March 6, 2009

Hello all,

I'm wondering if someone can point me to online information regarding the effects of annual pruning on Eastern Hemlock trees. I'm particularly interested in the consequences for the long-term health of the tree.

We have an odd situation in my village. The local council has given permission to a particular person to "prune" the trees in the public park across the street. There are about a dozen hemlocks receiving annual overall tip-pruning of about 4 - 6". Some of the trees are being pruned into shapes that resemble teacups about 5' tall. The rest are being kept at a height of about 8 to 12 feet.

There is one unpruned tree that was planted at the same time as the pruned ones, and the "normal" tree is about twice the height of the others.

The pruning is being done in early March. We are in USDA zone 5b. The trees are on a flood plain, in full sun. They are planted about 20 feet apart.

The person doing this pruning has no training and cuts the trees according to messages she receives from God. No kidding. Our council thinks this is a good idea. There is some "history" here I'm surely not aware of and, as a newcomer to the area, I may not have a chance to change the situation but I'm going to try.

I don't care whether this person gets professional help-- she's not a danger to anyone. But I do care about the trees and I need some ammunition to support my case that the trees are being harmed by this treatment.

The local certified arborists won't help, not wanting to interfere with the council decision.

Any ideas? Online resources to help with my case?

Thanks in advance.


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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

boy.. that is the best info i ever got from an arborist.. that has nothing to do with trees ... lol ... you should see the wisdom of the suggestion ...

that said...

if being properly pruned ... there is no harm to the CONIFER ... think 200 year old bonsai.. and you should understand such ...

all she is doing is IN GROUND bonsai ...


PS: and suggestion that one who speaks with God needs psyche care.. is a bit much for my tastes ..

    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 1:53PM
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Dan Staley

I'm not sure how they do it up there, but down here, being an arborist I'd go to the Council and insist the "pruner" be either ISA certified or have some sort of landscape maintenance certificate. If not, no pruning, as improper cuts can encourage infection.

And as an urban planner, I'd ensure my Council should also adopt a Resolution to require adherence to ANSI-ISO standards and BMPs for all maintenance, trees no exception.

The Council has a duty to uphold the public's health, safety, and welfare. If this practice is endangering the health of the trees, this can result in a hazard or structural failure that could leave the City liable if damage to property or life occurs (property more likely).


To that particular plant in question, this spp. is amenable to pruning according to Dirr, and Sunset says it is an outstanding clipped hedge. I live west of 100º and rarely see this plant, so personal experience is no help, but the standard references do not list hedging as a problem.

So when you go before your council, you'll want to bring up this point last, after the ANSI standards point which is an excellent case.

Good luck.


    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 2:03PM
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Ken, This is public park, not a Japanese Garden. People around here don't know the meaning of the word Bonsai. The park was planted to provide shade and some relief from the seasonal flooding the area receives. Re: voices from God-- you sound as nutty as the woman who is mangling our trees. If you can distinguish between the public and private spheres (fundies have a hard time with these concepts), then you'll understand why citizens might not want these trees to look like teacups or meatballs.

Dan, thanks for the advice. Very useful.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 3:00PM
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Dan Staley

bev, you're welcome.

Putting the planner hat back on, having practiced in a very small town I can well imagine how this situation arose. You may want to make sure the Village manager - if there is one, couldn't find a website - is looped into the discussion.

Ensure your presentation to the Council is a reasoned, calm one with handouts given to them well beforehand, and give them copies of ANSI standards and ISA brochures, and hit hard the liability angle if infection/disease occurs and a tree falls on a car or hurts a kid. Maybe get some help from the Village Manager and write a resolution for them and ask them to pass it while you stand up there patiently and wait for a vote.

Now the crazy lady is going to be upset, but the Council has a responsibility to the health, safety and welfare of the Village and should see that this practice can't continue.

Go git 'em!


    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 3:36PM
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I've drafted a letter to council that I'm going to run past a few like-minded citizens. Based on your comments, I'm going to emphasize the liability and standards aspects. I'm also going to bring up flood mitigation, climate change/CO2, cooling effects, and the public policy/aesthetics angle.

The crazy lady was not involved in the decision-- she's pretty far gone. She used to be a lot less crazy and she still has an advocate who happens to be a former tobacco baron, part of the old local oligarchy that just won't wither away no matter how much times change.

There was no opportunity for public debate-- the issue was not on the agenda, just "thrown in" after a resolution to allow a local citizens group to maintain the park's small flower garden and pond. If we'd known this was coming we'd have mobilized some opposition.

Historically our village has been treated with distain by the highbrows further north. Council assumes that no one will complain, and they generally don't. But the demographics are changing and we newcomers are far more informed and vocal than the locals.

I'd sure to see these trees grow to their full height and turn that park into something really beautiful.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 4:08PM
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Dan Staley

Excellent! Liability gets them every time.

If I may, Bev, I'm fairly far up there in urban forest research on benefits (current projects are green infrastrucure), and at your latitude the carbon sequestration just isn't a benefit - you're better off with pollution interception instead, then the rest of your list - flood mitigation, cooling, aesthetics. Flood mitigation is bigger and bigger these days and I use that angle in a couple of weeks (hint).

I hear you on the 'no debate' thing - showing that you are prepared and giving them notice usu. is enough to show Council that your ducks are in a row and is sufficient motivation to act. Having a dozen or so folks in the audience doesn't hurt, either. ;o)

Well done. Sounds like a good plan you have there and all the best.


    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 5:44PM
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You can't take a tall hemlock and "top" it, cutting through a thick trunk or big branches, and have it grow more bushy without harming the health of the tree. But hemlocks take regular shearing very, very well and the overall health of the tree is not affected.

So, it seems to me that the basis for any arguments/disagreements about how these trees are handled is one of aesthetics. I like fully and naturally grown hemlock trees personally. But, in some specific kind of setting I could see that regularly sheared hemlocks can have a place. My father had a wonderful rather tall (30 foot) hemlock in his front yard that couldn't grow to its full size in that spot. He had it professionally sheared each year that not only kept it in bounds but also resulted in a rather attractive tree. If he had not had it sheared, he would have had to remove it. But as it was handled, it was a real asset to the yard and the neighborhood as well.

So, if you want to argue that hemlocks can't properly be regularly sheared, you will lose on the merits of the case. But if you want to argue that you think the trees will look better and be a more valuable asset in the park if they are left to grow naturally, you may win if others have the same idea of what will make the park more beautiful.


    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 7:42PM
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Spruce, I'm not going to argue that shearing hurts the tree. But even if I did, this council would probably not care, or bother to check my claim.

These trees were planted with generous spacing, indicating the intention to let them grow pretty big. There are no "space constraint" reasons to keep them small.

Dan: more thanks! You're amazing.

I'd like to try an "investment" angle, too. Councils hate to think they're wasting money. Consider the cost of planting those trees, the value of a full grown hemlock, the value lost every year that the tree is kept small. I don't know if this is completely off base or whether I can make something out of it.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 12:53AM
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Here are your best arguments:

1. The cost of the annual shearing--it will have to be done every year.

2. The shearing, once started, needs to be continued. If a hemlock is sheared for several years and then the shearing is stopped with normal faster growth starting, the old border where the pruning was previously done, with the mass of close twigs and crooked branchlets that the shearing created, will not look good. These twigs and branchlets will die as they are shaded by the new faster growing outer foliage, but they will persist. It will take many, many years after the pruning is stopped for the tree to look "natural" again, if ever.

So you can argue that not only is the current cost a consideration, but starting a regimen of annual shearing will require a cost committment for the rest of the life of the tree.

Of course, in addition, you could show people pictures of naturally growing hemlocks and argue they are more beautiful.


    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 9:53AM
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Dan Staley

I don't know if this is completely off base or whether I can make something out of it.

The term is 'valuation', Bev, and the question is: what is the value of a mature tree? There are many formulas for calculating this, but often they are in the thousands or tens of thousands of $ (even CDN ;o) ).

Hedging or 'poodling' definitely reduces the valuation as what it does is change the 'use value' of the tree, by many measures, including reducing total leaf area to intercept & absorb pollutants & evapotranspirate (cooling the air & reducing Urban Heat Island). The 'aesthetic value' is of course changed, but the community has to do the valuation - that is: does everybody think poodles and pillboxes looks better than tall, majestic trees?

Lastly, as spruce said above, is it possible to fix the poodling (yes, but it takes longer than it took to butcher them into that shape), and if so, what will it cost to get somebody competent in there and corrective prune for 4-5 years?

Feel free to e-mail me if you want more literature to back your claims - I have literally thousands of MB of journal articles and such laying around here.


    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 10:43AM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

Two issues you should probably be aware of. The first is that the probable result of getting this woman banned from the park is that all volunteer labor will be banned. That means losing the garden, the pond, and anything else that is currently being maintained by volunteers.

The other is wooly adelgid. If it is on the local radar, another very real result of this is going to be the removal of the trees. They are much easier to bring down when fairly small, and if it is only a matter of time before they must be removed, it solves the entire problem if they are removed now.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 6:32PM
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Dan Staley

The first is that the probable result of getting this woman banned from the park is that all volunteer labor will be banned.


Many ways around this. Not a problem, esp when considering a technical task versus a labor task.


    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 7:14PM
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Isn't the damage already done? Is it really possible to turn such heavily pruned trees ("shapes that resemble teacups about 5' tall")..... into anything remotely resembling natural trees?

Originally you stated you were "particularly interested in the consequences for the long-term health of the trees" ... but now even knowing that hemlocks can take shearing, you seem to want to continue your crusade.

Is it possible your real concern is simply the good fight against "crazy religious types", "far less informed locals" and former tobacco barons?

I'm an atheist libertarian and love naturally shaped trees. But I'd much rather have this religious woman as a neighbor than some busy-body, garden variety leftist out looking for a fight.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 9:35PM
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I'm aware of the woolly adelgid. I think it has reached upstate New York and it's only a matter of time before it comes around to the north shore of Lake Erie. While we're waiting, I'd like to see these trees grow as much as they can. Trees (except perhaps the invasive ones) have inherent value, IMO.

I don't worry about the cost of taking them down someday-- our municipal workers love their chain saws. The town might even let someone have the trees for the trouble of cutting and removing them, for firewood.

Re: my new label as "busy-body, garden variety leftist out looking for a fight". Very droll. Who's looking for a fight? An armchair psychiatrist? Doctor, sometimes a tree REALLY IS a tree...

If this tree-pruner were simply a "religious woman" I'd be leaving her alone to her fantasies. I had no problems with her until I learned she was the one cutting the trees. Her main supporter happens to be a well-entrenched local bigwig. I'd be fighting him even if he were an insurance salesman or a hippie or an atheist libertarian.

Living across from the park I see these stunted trees every day. They're visible from our kitchen window. Only three of them are flying-saucer/teacups. The others have simply been heavily sheared every year, and its these ones I'm concerned about.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2009 at 12:33AM
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Spruceman, I'm thinking about your post. Maybe we'll have to find a qualified arborist or landscaper who will do the restorative pruning as a volunteer. I can't see our council paying to fix these trees. Or maybe we'll need to do some fundraising to pay for it.


    Bookmark   March 8, 2009 at 12:44AM
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Dan Staley

Maybe we'll have to find a qualified arborist or landscaper who will do the restorative pruning as a volunteer.

If they can be restored - no guarantee, don't count on it - that's a multi-year project. For leftists or objectivists (gimme a break ::o( ), as my penultimate para above said.

You can see now where this is headed: 'this is the extent of the damage caused, Honorable Council...'


    Bookmark   March 8, 2009 at 2:16PM
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