Correction of Crooked Leader

longtee81March 22, 2014

I was wondering if anyone had advice on how to fix this Princeton Elm that was allowed to lean.

My neighbor purchased this as a container last spring and it has always had this shape (looks like the nursery never bothered to help it grow upright). It was in a 10 Gallon Container.

There is a somewhat clear leader but it is at quite an angle leaning to the right in this picture.

Should he cut it back and try to establish/train a new leader or would it be possible to stake and pull the leader back over another growing season?

Thanks for any help or suggestions!

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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

i think i would leave it alone ... [with not being there in person its hard to be sure]

looking at google images.. i really dont see it as a single leader tree ...

and the branching of the leader is high enough ... that i wont be an issue.. as the crown is elevated to deal with the sidewalk and road issues ...

trees have a way of taking care of themselves ... and often... its best to let them do it.. they really are better than us at growing themselves ....

of which.. by the way.. its time to get rid of that useless stake ... a tree that size needs to be staked.. to offset the planting .. the lose root mass ... and it is not accomplishing that .. and its obviously not doing anything else up higher ... and most likely.. it was a shipping stake . ....

as paul and the guys once said... let it be ...


ps: its not the nurseries fault ... i would have not bought this particular tree .... unless it was a bargain ....

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 7:08PM
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I was thinking the stake may have been a former attempt to train a leader. I did something similar once when I had to cut off a Fat Albert leader due to borer damage. I put a stake at the top to help the leader candidate take off. And it did.

Another option might be to remove 4-5' of the leaning branch and encourage a leaderless tree form. You would need to determine the cut point carefully to assess where the new growth will emerge to help direct the growth in the right direction. The tree may be too tall now to get in close to do that so you may have to cut blindly.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2014 at 8:11PM
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Thanks for the responses and suggestions! The picture is a little deceiving as the stake is not actually in the ground, just midway up the tree in an attempt to straighten up the leader (it is not really high enough to accomplish it, but is an attempt to "splint" the tree). I have read some very interesting suggestions in an Edward Gilman book (An Illustrated Guide to Pruning) which has some really good information (see link page 105- 109). I am thinking that the topping technique describe on page 107 of the linked document may correct this.

There is so much information out there it is tough to pick a direction and go with it without having a lot of experience!

Ken, I know that buyer beware and a quality tree should be #1 priority (including the roots which can be a little hard to investigate with container trees), but how is this not the nurseries fault? I know that the tree as purchased was not tied to any bamboo or other rigid pole, etc. to keep it from bending in the wind.

Thanks again for any thoughts or opinions!

(This is a great book if anyone is interested in reading more on this topic. It is quite expensive since it is an academic book, but I was able to find a used previous edition on Amazon for very cheap!)


Here is a link that might be useful: Link to portions of an Ed Gilman Pruning Book

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 12:03AM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

I had the same issue with a Katsura, Ginkgo and Satisfaction Maple (hybrid A. truncatum). Take a 6' bamboo stake, start it at a straight section, and pull the leader over. Use that stretchy green tape found at almost all home improvement centers to allow for caliper. Leave it on for a full year. Presto the thing is corrected.

If the plant throws up a new crooked leader shoot then I don't know what to tell you. Didn't happen in three cases described above.

I have a musclewood to address this upcoming weekend.

Just throwing out another opinion.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 9:47AM
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Excellent link!

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 11:48AM
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You'll never notice it once it gets bigger, it's your call of course.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 8:56PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Hmm, I didn't catch your post and link. Not sure why you'd top it.

My suggestion is the same as page 105 in your link.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 9:24PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

Ken, I know that buyer beware and a quality tree should be #1 priority (including the roots which can be a little hard to investigate with container trees), but how is this not the nurseries fault?

==>>> i wasnt very artful with my words ...

presumably... there is the nursery it was bought from ... it was thrown off a truck for sale... this guy had nothing to do with how it grew ... caveat emptor ...

then there was probably a wholesale nursery ...

and maybe even a growers nursery ...

my point was meant to be.. to not go bi-otch at your seller.. he didnt do anything wrong ... yoru neighbor picked the tree and gave him money ...

and.. to belabor my point.. this is a tree that can live 100 years ... and grow into a prime specimen with absolutely no help from you.. other than a little deep watering in drought for the next year or two ... because of.. solely.. the transplanting ...

my point was that the bend is high enough.. with road and sidewalk ... that it is irrelevant on the grand scale of things ... YOU SIMPLY DONT REALLY NEED TO DO ANYTHING ... it's a tree.. it will deal with it ... bingo bango ...

on some level ... you are trying to love this thing too much .. in the extreme.. to death ...

the tree does not really have a problem... its you and the neighbor who are applying an aesthetic straightness to nature... nature doesnt really deal with plumb lines etc .. well it does.. the tree will balance itself all out.. and when that trunk is a foot or two wide... yes.. in the next decades or so.. you will NOT see this bend.. that is driving you guys over the edge today ..

so the very simple answer is... leave it alone.. and let it do its job ...

trust me... being a bit of a plumb perfectionist myself.. it took me a decade of dealing with trees and conifers .. to understand.. that if you just leave them alone... but for transplant care.. they can all take care of themselves ...

any clearer???


ps: your splint idea is a method.. but you are basically using a noodle to bend back a bow [as in bow and arrow] ... and i dont know if looking at a 2 X 2 bound to the tree.. would be any better than ignoring a minor bend ...

pps: the real trick for dealing with this.. as i have bought many a tree like this.. would have been to.. at planting.. sit in the picture window.. and plant it.. so the bend was not apparent from the house... lol ... you plant them straight.. from the most obvious viewing point.. and the heck with what the other neighbors see.. lol ... and no.. i would not now redig it.. for a better placement... its a done deal.. the tree will take care of itself ...

ppps: and it should never need fert .. if you are thinking you will make it grow faster to hide the problem faster ... if its in a lawn thats fert'd .. it needs nothing else .. ever ... in the realm of 'food' ....

    Bookmark   March 26, 2014 at 10:40AM
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Thanks for the clarifications Ken!

I understand what you mean about not blaming the nursery who sold it. The local nurseries around here tend to get stock from all over the place and some years are better than others.

I see your point in just letting it work its way to a natural form by doing nothing, but it seems to be a fine balance and hard to know when to act or just let it be. I planted an Autumn Blaze (about a 5 gallon) when I first moved into my home, did nothing and 10 years later it has around 4 competing leaders. While they are all straight in this case, it has created a potential future issue and it is well past the point of make simple corrections that I could have done at planting if I had a basic understanding of pruning.

A great book (especially if you are into elm trees, which I happen to be) is called "Pruning Young Elms" by Chad Giblin from the University of Minnesota.

It is the only book of its kind that I know of. Just 100 pages that are dedicated to explaining how one should take care of and train an elm tree (American, Asian ad Hybrid) so that it has a nice structure and form at maturity. One of the key points stressed in this book is that all branches below 15 feet should be considered temporary and therefore pruning practices should focus from the top down. It gives first hand accounts for "training" elm trees with leaders that "diverge from center" using various methods, and indicates that "elms usually respond very quickly and favorably, to this practice". This is a great book for anyone who is interested in Elm trees, and also a good overall resource for general pruning practices, etc..

I know my neighbor may be interested in the immediate short term improvement by straightening out the tree, but I was looking to help him approach it from a more long term perspective. Depending on the techniques that would be used, it could result in a less than beautiful tree in the short term vs just letting it be, but since this tree is capable of outliving everyone one of us (if it's lucky and doesn't get DED, elm yellows, etc.), I wanted help make sure that is pruned correctly. The target in my mind would be that one day, many years into the future it would be capable of being pruned up (at least 10 feet above the street / preferably 15ft) similar to just about every large city maintained street tree that I have encountered that was planted long before I was born. :)

Ken, you have given me a lot to think about though and I always appreciate your informative comments. Us beginners need all the help and we can get! It is very easy to want to do too, much vs. just letting it be and waiting for nature and time to fix things!

I have placed a link to a short clip from the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. While it has nothing to due with tree care or tree pruning at all (deals with learning to surf), it still kind of reminds me of pruning and the need to find the perfect balance between doing nothing and doing too much!

Here is a link that might be useful: Link to Movie Clip (About surfing, but applies to pruning also)

    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 10:38PM
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