Sunday, January 19, 2014

How to trim live oaks

Each and every one of us southern suburbanites has 'em standing tall if not proud in our front yards:
Oh, look!!!  A shapeless blob that looks exactly like everyone else's shapeless blob!!

Live oaks can be beautiful, but not when they are allowed to remain in an uncontrolled, scruffy state.  We gave our two front yard specimens some time to grow and fill in before we commenced with the training I'll describe below. 
If you live in greater Houston, now (December-January) is the time to trim your live oaks if you're going to do it this year.  The trees are at maximum dormancy in the dead of winter, and they haven't begun to shed their leaves, as they do in the spring (which confuses the hell of out people who are not familiar with live oaks, sometimes leading them to do terrible things to the trees, such as "topping" them). 

Tree trimming is partly a matter of taste.  I lived in west Austin for three years and became influenced by the dramatic sculptural way in which residents tend to groom their oaks there:
Those are either live oaks or red oaks.  This is a real estate sales pic which was discussed in this post.   
Compare that beautiful Austin house above to this house chosen at random in Centerpointe (screengrabbed from Google).  These trees are not the least bit pretty, and you'd never even know that there's a beautiful house behind all that hot mess of un-pruned riotous live oak.  These residents have actually put good care into edging their landscape with stone and trimming their bushes, but the impact is completely overwhelmed by the trees.

These trees do a profound disservice to this property.  I don't mean to pick on these specific residents.  About 80% of Centerpointe front yards are currently in an equivalent state. 
I have multiple motivations for wanting to make my front yard look more like the Austin example than that Centerpointe example shown immediately below it. 

First, I prefer the open style - I find it looks more groomed and it also makes the front yard look and feel much more spacious. 

Second, I don't want my live oaks to shade the front yard to the point of damaging our lawn or raised bed growth.
There's our front bed of winter onions in progress.  The morning shadows need to remain light and dappling, not overwhelming and crushing.  (And yes, I do need to weed this bed, but so far these onions are coming along well.) 
Some folks are not going to be comfortable trimming their own trees, in which case a professional services company can be used.  I don't know of a good one for trees, so I can't recommend one here.  In fact, if your live oaks are already very large, you might have no choice but to hire someone, but ours are still fairly small.  If you are brave enough to tackle this as a DIY project, here are some basic steps worth considering:

First, review Randy Lemmon's general tips on tree trimming.  He is Houston's local landscaping expert.

Second, assemble your tools (you'll see pics of the tools in the sections below):
  1. Step ladder (careful).
  2. Long-handled loppers.
  3. Hand-held pruning shears.
  4. Hand saw and/or chain saw (if your live oaks are larger)
  5. Safety glasses (tree debris will be raining down on you from above).
Third, start by removing larger branches that are either pointing downward, crossed over other branches, or crowding out other branches.  If you spend a few minutes eyeballing your tree, the ones that need to be removed will start to jump out at you. 
Loppers rising to the challenge.  Our trees were planted 4 years ago, and so most of the branches are still small enough for loppers rather than saw. 
Use the process of elimination and logical deduction as to which branches to keep and which to remove.  That little branch cut off at lower left... that one in particular was clearly not going to amount to anything if allowed to remain on the tree.  All it would do would be to interfere with the healthy, well-formed larger branch extending outward to the left.  It would also drain energy from the parts of the tree that I'd prefer to see growing more vigorously. 
Fourth, once you've got your undesirable major branches thinned out and removed, use hand pruners to remove smaller suckers.  The word "sucker" sometimes means basal shoots, which emanate from the roots.  But I'm using the word here to refer to any minor branch which is "clearly not going to amount to anything good if allowed to remain on the tree".  That's the question I ask myself when deciding what to cut and not cut.  "Is this one going to do any good in adding to the tree?"  If the answer is no, I cut it off.
Or my husband does, because he's quite good at this kind of thing. 

The closer you are to the trunk, the more suckers should be removed. 
Fifth, make sure to remove any damaged branches.  Even if they are in a good location on the tree, if they are damaged, nothing good is going to come from them, either.
Here's an example - this branch was growing from the tree in a good location from an aesthetic standpoint, but it had fissured.  It had to come off. 
Sixth, don't be alarmed at the diversity of life you'll find in your live oak.
This is called Spanish Moss and it's like nature's Christmas decoration. 
Seventh, step back and admire your own handiwork routinely in the process.  Don't try to do too much at one time.  If you're unsure as to whether or not to cut certain branches off, leave them on and re-evaluate at a later time after the tree has had more opportunity to grow and fill in.
There's the before and after on this particular tree, although it's not shown from the same viewing angle here.  I could probably do more even more shaping, but given that this was our first major trim, I want to allow the tree more time to grow before I decide what to do next. 
Are ya feelin' it!?!?!

That's the Austin exemplar on the left, and a silhouette view of my newly-hacked oak on the right.  My tree is decades younger and still pretty gangly, but you get the feeling that it's starting to move in the desired direction. 
Eighth, bundle up all your junk for the trash man.  Our collection service won't take cut limbs unless they are cut short (three feet, I think) and tied with twine.
Into every life, a little trash-bagging must fall.

We find that this is a two-person job:  One person to trim, and the other person to bundle and bag. 
Happy trimming.

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