Pruning Tip #1: Mastering Reduction Cuts

This young blackgum or tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), a tree species native to Georgia, was beginning to sprawl into Euclid Avenue and the adjacent sidewalk. With the Inman Park Festival & Tour of Homes coming up, Tree Watch wanted to do some light pruning, fearing that someone would inadvertently damage the tree by ripping away a branch.

Rather than remove an entire branch or branches — this prize needs to photosynthesize! — we opted for a series of reduction cuts

  1. The star in the photo marks the tree’s central leader. We never cut the central leader! By “topping” a tree, we would be removing the specialized bud that lies at the tip of this particular branch. The so-called apical bud (think of “apex”) ensures that its branch will remain dominant over all the side branches. After all, we want this tree to grow upnot just out!
  2. The arrows in the photo above point to the approximate locations of our reduction cuts. We use this type of pruning to reduce the overall size of a tree by decreasing the length of some of its stems and branches.

3. Again, the pink tape marks the locations we chose for our reduction cuts. Note that the tape is tied just beyond nodes on the branches. Nodes are specialized areas on a branch where the buds, leaves, and branching twigs originate.

On an older, larger tree, our cuts would reduce stems back to lateral branches capable of sustaining the remaining limb, as this drawing from Ed Gilman illustrates:

But on a tree as young as our blackgum here, which doesn’t yet have twigs, we settled for reducing the branches back to some buds from which leaves had recently emerged.

If you “tip” a branch back a spot between nodes, the tree is likely to respond by growing a spray of weakly attached sprouts near the cut. Those twigs will become branches, and because they’re weakly attached, they’ll be prone to failure (in wind, for example, or in an ice storm, say).

5. Our rule of thumb is not to remove more than a quarter of a young tree’s leafy crown in one growing season, and even less on a tree of medium age. Here you can see our trimmings:

There you have it! Sometimes removing an entire branch is appropriate, but not always. Reduction cuts are a great way to shape a tree while giving it every chance at happy photosynthesis and vigorous growth.

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