Maple tree training new leader

sdiver2489August 20, 2014

I had some winter damage on my new maple tee this year and was instructed by an arborist to cut off the dead part of the lead back to the next branch. I did so and staked this to pull it vertical. It is growing but the branch next to it just a bit further down might be growing even faster. Is there something I should watch for to make sure the new leader training is going well?

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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

If the one below is faster, make THAT one the new leader, and cut the rest off above it.

I can't really see it in your pic, however, can you post a closeup?

    Bookmark   August 20, 2014 at 3:26PM
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toronado3800 Zone 6 StLouis(6)

Pick the naturally strongest one.

Is that a red maple? How high up are they usually single leader trees?

    Bookmark   August 20, 2014 at 4:00PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

in all reality.. this should be a three or 4 year project ...

so why not take a pic of the tree when its nudey ... and we can see whats going on ...

consider a tree that could live 60 to 100 years... and you want... need??? ... to perfect a new leader inside one year ... crikey.. it can do it itself.. if you give it time ...

there is simply no hurry to do this ...

and while tooling around town ... after leaf fall ... take a close look at trees.. and find out how few have only one leader .... it will probably surprise you.. how few do ...


    Bookmark   August 20, 2014 at 5:15PM
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Hi thanks for the responses. I'll get a close up as I took that picture on my way out to work. Both the leader I have staked and the branch below have growth. It's just the growth on the one below seems more vigorous.

I've never had a tree I had to cut the leader on before and I'm trying to learn how to do it properly. I always thought cutting the leader meant no new growth on a tree so color me a newbie. Just trying to make sure my tree succeeds. I've been drip watering from a hose all my new trees and they all are healthy and strong considering they are all fairly new.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2014 at 11:44PM
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Mostly what Ken says: This thing is a baby, just barely expressing its ultimate form. It's cool that you know about competing leaders, subordination pruning cuts, etc. but beware the tendency to want to do too much.

If it were mine, I might opt to wait a bit, or again, as Ken suggests, wait until foliage is off the thing, to see what structure is actually there. But yes, generally, maintaining a single main leader-for longer into the tree's young life-is a good practice in terms of ending up with a well-structured tree. FWIW, I've never believed it necessary to tie sticks up in trees to show them how to grow towards the sun. Completely unnecessary, and possibly harmful, leastways if the darn thing gets left up there too long.


    Bookmark   August 21, 2014 at 8:02AM
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So you don't find that leaders need to be pulled vertical if you cut the main leader and are training a new one?

I agree, I don't want to do too much. My main concern is I want to make sure in 5 years I have a decent size tree and not one that grew oddly and necessitates removal and starting over again. We have a new house and it frustrates me how few neighbors seem to grow real trees anymore. I love large, mature trees and want to get that look as soon as possible .Obviously, its a way off. But I don't want to repeat the work if its avoidable.

So far the drip watering appears to really be encouraging good growth. Very happy with that.

If I don't need to have the bamboo on there to pull what I hope will be the new leader vertical, I'll gladly take it off.

What should I watch for as it develops?

    Bookmark   August 22, 2014 at 2:47AM
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If you think another branch may compete with your new leader, you subordinate (cut back a predetermined amount) the competing branch. This will slow the competition in favor of your new leader.

Don't remove the branch entirely, as you want it in place to help increase trunk growth and taper.

I definitely would not remove everything down to the more aggressive branch, as suggested above.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2014 at 5:04PM
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Here is a bit better picture of the top of the tree. The lower branch of the left side is now a bit taller than the higher branch that I pulled vertical. You can also see that this taller branch is significantly longer. I cut the original leader back to the shorter branch being pulled vertical around the start of summer.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2014 at 11:54PM
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Yes, bamboo and/or other sticks never needed in tree pruning......ever. We must "leader train" some two to three thousand youngish trees a year. What hilarity would ensue if we started taping little sticks up in these growing sticks!

So no, I isn't laughing at your expense, just I find that whole thing amusing, when people do things with plants which, if you stop to think about it, are completely out of line with what these organisms did for the first several hundred million years before us monkeys showed up, and managed very well, thank you!

No, a lead branch basically never needs to be pulled, pushed, pried, or otherwise mechanically forced into proper orientation. That's what those same hundreds of millions of years of natural selection has done for these plants. They've figured out how to grow on their own.

I applaud your recognition of a problem in modern landscaping that even many pros seem to be blissfully unaware of: As houses get bigger, the plant material has shrunk in scale. Giant house-little ornamental tree, maybe some black-eyed susans and a clump of Russian sage, but no maples, elms, basswoods, oaks, spruce, pines, etc, all of which would eventually grow to be in scale with the giant house. So I get that. What you've got to realize is trees actually grow fast. Plant a tree which is well-suited to your environment, plant it properly, water adequately when needed, and you're quickly going to have nice tree. It goes much faster than people are inclined to believe.

The type of pruning you want to do can be described as either "leader training" which I referred to earlier, or better still, "subordination pruning". There's a guy down at U of FL who has done as much as anybody-Ed Gilman-to describe and refine these methods. Maybe take a visit to some of those web pages-it sounds like you're ripe to learn. And if you do, you'll know more than half the people on this forum right now about young tree pruning and care.


    Bookmark   August 26, 2014 at 8:20AM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

wisconsitom - good stuff.

I will add a small point of disagreement, however, on the idea that one never need straighten a leader with a stick.

Some species naturally form multitrunked trees with very low branching. Redbuds are a good example. Every small redbud seedling I've ever seen grows at about a 45 degree angle. It then sends out a few other low branches, which become the multiple trunks, all at around 45 degree angles, rarely does it send one straight up. Any time I see a redbud in the woods, even if a more "tree" form, it has a trunk that basically divides at or a few inches above ground level. Including a massive one I saw at a woodland edge that has to be the biggest redbud I've ever seen, with about a 40' spread and similar height. It has about 3 main stems that branch near ground level.

I presume (but could be wrong) that when you buy a young redbud with a nice, straight single trunk, that someone had to train that trunk straight up for a couple years before letting it do its thing (while still clipping off low branches in the process). You can't prune to a straight leader when it doesn't produce any - you'd have no tree left!

I've also read reports that one must do a similar thing with Ulmus americana 'Valley Forge' for its tendency to do a similar thing.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2014 at 11:08AM
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Here's a follow up question. Since this is a street/sidewalk tree, when should I trim off the branches lower than, say, 7 feet up?

    Bookmark   August 26, 2014 at 7:08PM
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Quite right, Hair. I'm sure there are individual cases like those you've described. On the elm tip: I've long noted (And undoubtedly blabbed about it here) through the years that for such a regal and imposing mature tree, all American elm saplings are surprisingly untidy and unimposing-nearly always, as you suggest with the cultivar, growing half-sideways, etc. only to turn into a straight-trunked beauty later in life. That's with or without human intervention. I don't even quite know how they manage to do that!

sd, if at all possible, take a go-slow approach to "raising up" this tree. There is absolutley nothing wrong with what you propose, just do it very gradually, a tier of branches here, another there, spaced over several years. There is a formula-almost certainly based on nothing more than intuition-stating that never should more than 1/3rd of the live crown of a given tree be removed in any one session. But again, there is no science behind that statement, only the correct notion that a young tree can be damaged by overzealous pruning. Since you have a definite need to raise this tree up, it is perfectly valid to do so. Just don't get carried away! Take it slow. And after all, any branches which do now-and for the next few years-grow into the pedestrian or motorized right of way, will be tiny, pliable things for some time. Only when the branches are so large and stiff that a "bus pruning" would be apt to tear or knock the limb off is it necessary to get said limb out of the way.


    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 8:07AM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

+toM, I don't know how American Elms do it, either. 'Princeton', however, seems to be better looking in youth than VF or others I have seen.

Another species that grows straight even though my eyes tell me it won't - Cedrus deodara. The leaders always droop, I never can tell when they straighten up, yet they do. It's the weirdest thing.

Sometimes, those of us who are perfectionists have to remind ourselves to just "let it go", at least for a while.

This post was edited by hairmetal4ever on Wed, Aug 27, 14 at 9:38

    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 9:37AM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Where was the original cut made? Was it a couple inches below that tape?

If so pulling a branch in to be the leader won't necessarily define what branch the tree will select as the new leader. The pruning of the dead wood was absolutely the right thing to do though.

In hindsight you probably should have left it this year to see which one would be the leader/dominant stem.

Then next spring pull that strongest lateral that will now be the leader/dominant to your bamboo stick.

This isn't required as Tom mentioned but its your call if you want a crook in your tree. The new growth going forward will certainly go to the sky.

Unless you have a cultivar that was selected to produce a strong central leader, red maples are known for a decurrent habit. This is where you'd typically want to maintain a dominant leader (usually done with subordination pruning) up to 2/3rds its mature height.

As others mentioned its young, be patient to see how things shake out.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 9:57AM
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This is a great book from Ed Gillman (the newer version is even better)

A good investment if you want to learn from university studies and trials instead of just opionions and individual experiences.

Here is a link that might be useful: Leader Training Link

    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 12:25PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Good point, I'd take our advice and use it as supplemental info.

Even though some are widely accepted general practices, you will get different insights from one study/trial to the next.

Individual experiences are just as important. Its how we do things better, its how we innovate and learn from each other. I have certainly seen different results from those general practices. After all these are living plants that won't do what you think they might do.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 12:52PM
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Good point as well!

You are right on the individual experiences being critical. I think these are just as important so I didnâÂÂt mean to minimize how helpful they are and this is really what this forum is about. There are so many conflicting articles on the Internet from what those who would appear to be reputable sources, it can get a little overwhelming at times. (Soil Amendments at planting, pruning at planting, fertilizing, etcâ¦.). I just think there are often strong opinions that make a person believe they are doing something idiotic and wrong when in fact they are practicing a method that has been studied and shown to work.

To make matters worse there are also variables (tree species, location, soil conditions, etc..) that are many times not considered prior to giving advice.

Even worse these strong opinions are sometimes shared without ever having tried the practice at all. I really do enjoy this site because it has both a combination of experiences and links to articles, but my favorite articles originate from trials or studies with actual data.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 2:15PM
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In regards to the previous question, the cut was made pretty much right at the base of where the branch tied to the bamboo rod meets the trunk. It had died back to this point.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2014 at 10:24PM
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