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Bringing back light to dark places

In this column, the Vancouver Sun's garden writer Steve Whysall gives a first-hand account of the work done by Davey Tree's Vancouver arborists. Read the story below or click here to see it as it was printed.

Posted December 13, 2012. 1:15 pm • Section: In the Garden

By Steve Whysall

Over the years, my garden has been trying its hardest to turn into woodland.

Small trees that I planted 20 years ago have matured and grown tall and wide and started to swallow up all available sunlight, turning the ground below into a forest floor, fit only for ferns and shade-loving perennials.

Where once roses grew, there are now rhododendrons and azaleas. Where scabiosa, liatris and lavatera once flourished in streaming sunshine, today hosta and ligularia rub shoulders in the shadows.

I decided it was time to call in a crew of top-notch arborists to do some judicious pruning that would open up canopies and unblock sunshine corridors and let in more light and create better air circulation.To get the job done properly, I knew I would need to find some expert pruners, pros who were not competent arborists by job description, but people who understand the value and intrinsic beauty of a tree and the need to protect and preserve a tree’s integral esthetic structure.

Frankly, the last thing I wanted was to release into my garden people who would end up butchering my beautiful trees, leaving them with wounding cuts and ugly, corrupted canopies.

I spent a long time searching for the right crew. Eventually, I found Scott Suffron, top boss at Davey Tree Service on Beresford Street in Burnaby, and his protégé Jeff Case, a graduate of Kwantlen School of Horticulture’s arboriculture courses.

I spent an afternoon watching them work and I liked what I saw: intelligent decision-making, great climbing skills, clean cuts.

Suffron is a stickler for detail. He’s not happy if a job is not done perfectly. I liked that commitment.
Case has an impressive passion for urban trees and refuses to do anything that leaves a tree injured or misshapen. I loved that.

When they arrived at my garden, they brought a third guy, Simon Poole, a 22-year-old Englishman trained in arboriculture in Northumberland with experience working for a top tree company there, as well as in forestry on the Scottish border.

Poole walked confidently into my garden and immediately identified my beloved sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’) and told me that the tar spots on the leaves were not a big problem, but the stress growth in the upper canopy was. I was impressed.

Poole, it turns out, is Davey Tree’s wunderkind, an amazingly gifted arborist (yes, even at 22) with a flair for selecting and making precisely the right cut without destroying the overall look of a tree.
There is a downside to pruning trees in winter. It is not wise to remove large limbs or do major thinning of a canopy when the tree does not have as much energy to fight off any disease that might get it over winter.

On the other hand, the dormant season is the ideal time to example the framework of a deciduous tree when it has lost all its leaves and you can more easily see and prune away dead, diseased, crossing and damaged branches.

My request of my pruning A-team was to create more light in the garden without damaging the natural shape of the trees.

The first thing they noticed was a handful of awful cuts that I had done. I dropped to my knees (like John Belushi in Blues Brothers) and ran off my list of excuses: “It was dark, my loppers broke, I fell off the ladder, I could only use my left hand, I was wearing an eye patch … please forgive me!”

They reminded me about the one-third rule. You don’t cut a branch back until there is a subordinate branch that is at least one-third the size of the one being cut.

“Ah, yes, the one-third rule, of course,” I said. And quickly went inside and left them to it.
They limbed up my precious evergreen Chinese magnolia (Maglietia insignis), which I told them is probably the biggest and possibly the only one in Vancouver. They took away a branch that was shading a large rhododendron and causing it not to flower.

They also clipped away a few well-selected branches to open up a better view of the garden from the main sitting area on the deck.

Next, they worked on two Japanese maples, to open up space for more sunlight to reach the patio below where I grow sun-loving brugmansia and plumbago and other specialties in summer.
A pink-flowering dogwood needed careful readjustment. I had pruned away a few heavy branches to open space on one side, creating an imbalance on the other. The tree had started to lean toward the house.

The crew gently nipped and tucked away branches to redress the balance, paying close attention to the angle of cuts to ensure maximum healing. When they had finished, the tree still had its lovely shape.

On and on, they went around the garden, clipping the top of a Magnolia soulangeana to prevent branches tangling with service wires, removing crossing branches in a katsura, and clearing a few branches of a spruce tree to give more space and light to lilac, calycanthus, ninebark and shrub roses below.

The sycamore maple posed the biggest challenge. Poole said the tree showed signs of a few years of “stress growth” resulting from a highly condensed canopy and probably poor nutrition.
Simon scrambled into the maple as effortlessly as he had climbed into the Chinese magnolia and began carefully opening the canopy.

I watched this operation like a parent watching his child crossing the road alone for the first time. I love this tree and could not bear to see it injured. Poole did a great job. Every cut made the tree healthier and left it looking better than before.

After four hours, the work was done. The last task was to give all the trees a deep-root fertilizing treatment.

Many trees in the urban environment are starving from lack of nutrients, partly due to compacted soils and improper placement at time of planting.

One way to help “fortify” these trees and get them the nutrition they need to flourish is to inject slow-release fertilizer directly into the root system as a way of fortifying the tree.
This technique also provides much needed oxygen and water to the root zone along with the natural fertilizer without burning or leaching.

Case gave all my ornamental trees a boost using a rod that pushes into the ground and releases a carefully blended mixture of organic fertilizer from four holes.

The fertilizer contains some ready-available nutrients, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that will be released slowly over 12 to 14 months.

For more information, contact Scott Suffron at Davey Tree Service at 6146 Beresford St., Burnaby, call 604-987-2084 or go to www.davey.com

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