From February Snow to Pruning

By Beth Weir

I started thinking about pruning during our current big Seattle snow after a large branch from a neighbor’s tree collapsed under the weight of the white stuff. It is, of course, nature’s way of taking care of weakened and diseased wood. Efficient it may be. However, the randomness of cleaning up the trees of the world in this fashion is a bit troubling for us mortals who live among mature specimens.

This led me to wonder what were the actual risks of being hit by a falling branch. (This is what happens when you have snow induced time on your hands. Also, as I had a car pancake under a fallen pine branch in a former snowstorm, I am very respectful of this potential scenario.)   

It turns out the chances in the UK, at least, of being struck in a public place have been estimated at 1 in 20,000,000. By contrast, a lottery player is 75 times more likely to win a jackpot than be killed by a tree. Lightning or a car accident is also liable to get you before a tree limb as well. In the U.S. 100 people die from falling branches each year. Still, none of that helps the poor soul who suffers such a fate.

In any event, I drifted from thinking about nature’s pruning to that practiced by man, when Carolyn, the Dunn’s executive director sent me pictures of the garden under the snow with the caption, ‘fairyland.’ I wondered as I admired the grand, white magic of the scene how our fifty heritage trees that make up 30% of the canopy, are doing under nature’s onslaught. If nature doesn’t prune them, should we?

Since most of Dunn’s heritage trees are over 100 years-old, they are by definition, robust. As a general principle, when healthy they also require little help from the loppers. This is true of the Douglas Firs, Redwoods, Sugar Maples, Giant Sequoia, European Beech, Northern Red Oak, Tulip Poplar and even the Dove or Handkerchief tree. So, aside from removing the dead and dying members of a tree, and the early shaping of the specimen—crossed branches, suckers, identifying a leader – those trees are mostly happy to just be.

A reassuring note here: Since we are a public garden we are forever conscious of the safety issues around trees. A current project, underwritten by 4Culture, during which the heritage specimens have been examined by an arborist, is in support of this concern, as are the interventions being implemented.

What about other plants that are not heritage; hydrangeas, rhododendrons, etc.. In my yard and neighborhood they are mostly covered up to their budding tips in snow, so I am assuming that is true at the garden as well. If they brave out the winter storm these are lovelies that are a lot more particular with respect to pruning. The practioner has to know the best time of year for the task; which stalks should be removed, where on the branch should the cut be made and more. For the general gardener all this can be maddening.

Happily, Dunn is holding a two-hour, hands-on class with Janet Egger who is a retired plant breeder, (Terra Nova Nurseries, Oregon) and an avid gardener. Class members will learn proper techniques. Bring your shears and your questions on March 9, 10:00am to noon. (Register:

So, what to do in the meantime? Our collective optimism about the enchantment of a white landscape will undoubtedly dim with too many more storms. But, for the moment I’m personally enjoying pruning back life to small matters: coaxing my  terrier to take a pottie break in snow taller than he is, making soup and watching the kids sled down the street. And deciding on what to plant when the snow does disappear. Best high blood pressure treatment I know. 

Pruning – it helps us flourish as well as our plants.

 (See this Naturenet blog for more information on the chances of being hit by a falling tree limb. .

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