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Going Out on a Limb –

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Going Out on a Limb

I thought I had signed up for the introductory citizen tree-pruning class sponsored by TreesNY, a nonprofit that works with the city to plant, preserve and protect trees. However, when I arrived at the North Meadow Recreation Center—it’s a building in the middle of Central Park around 97th Street—I discovered that I’d actually enrolled in the advanced “Structural Citizen Pruner” class.

Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Sam Bishop, right, teaches a tree-pruning workshop at the North Meadow Recreation Center in Central Park.

What’s the difference? How should I know? I missed the introductory class. Don’t worry, I didn’t attempt to mask my ignorance and make believe I knew what I was doing by razing some Dutch elm that’s been around since Frederick Law Olmsted planted it with his bare hands in the mid-19th century. I had no intention of performing surgery on Central Park’s trees, or on those in the parks and streets in any of the five boroughs. I was simply hoping to pick up some tips and pole-saw pruning techniques from the experts so that I could manicure my own beleaguered specimens upstate.

That would also have been wishful thinking, because the vast majority of those trees are well beyond my capacity, both in size and the amount of rappelling equipment, effort and expertise it would take to get them into the sort of fighting trim typical of Central Park’s trees—some of which appear to have had more work done than many of the ladies, and more than a few of the men, for that matter, whose co-ops overlook the park.

If I have any philosophy when it comes to tree care and maintenance it was passed down to me by the late, great August Heckscher, a former New York City parks commissioner, founder of Civitas—a neighborhood improvement organization—and Wilson scholar. Regarding the trees on his own property in Seal Harbor, Me., Mr. Heckscher once stated, “We take them down when they fall down.” Or words to that effect.

I came to appreciate his vision after I foolishly listened, many years ago, to some beginner landscaper who suggested we cut down a couple of tall trees along our driveway because of something he called “Maple Tree Decline.” Thirty years later I have yet to witness the decline. And I have no doubt that had I let them stand they’d be as majestic as ever and certainly hardier than the Callery pears that replaced them and start splitting down the middle at the first whiff of snow or ice.

Indeed, the pruner class discussed Callery pears later in the evening when Sam Bishop, our instructor, flashed a slide of a street pear tree in distress on a screen at the front of the room. With a massive split almost cleaving the tree’s trunk in half, I thought I recognized it as one of my own. “The entire tree has to be removed,” he stated flatly. “That’s not a crack that’s going to get better.”

If I were to remove all our Callery pears with massive cracks we wouldn’t have any left. Come to think of it, Mr. Heckscher’s status-quo tree-maintenance philosophy constitutes only a portion of mine. The rest of it might be described as magical thinking. Since trees have been around a lot longer than us, I have to assume they’ve gotten pretty good at taking care of themselves over the eons.

The problem, of course, is that a park, especially parks such as Central and Prospect, aren’t natural settings. They’re works of art that must be maintained and occasionally restored, no less than one would a Rembrandt or Rubens at the Met. And street trees are a whole other matter. One of the students in the structural tree-pruning class raised the issue of the ubiquitous scaffolding on city streets and the havoc they wreak on trees.

If you happen to pass a sidewalk tree that is horribly disfigured—the top is lopped off or all the branches are on one side—chances are that it’s a victim of scaffolding. But tree victimization wasn’t what we were there to discuss, or determine how to alleviate—an issue, I suspect, better addressed to the Department of Buildings than to Parks and Recreation. “We’re looking for specific defects,” Mr. Bishop said. “On the branches…the shape of the tree.”

As I said, my expectation is that I’d be learning knife skills. But Morgan Monaco, the director of MillionTreesNYC, the Bloomberg administration initiative to plant the city green, told me that topic had actually been covered in the introductory class. A branch clipper was nowhere to be seen on the evening I attended. In fact, all my companions in structural tree pruning had passed the class and been awarded certificates—effectively licenses. “They have special permission to prune young trees,” Ms. Monaco explained.

“Everybody here has gotten their certificate,” she added. “We’re giving you an honorary certificate.”

That made me feel much better, though not about my tree-pruning skills.

After an introductory pep talk where we were referred to as tree “ambassadors” to the general public, or as someone put it, to “people who don’t like trees as much as we like them,” we headed outdoors to a nearby shingle oak.

There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. Indeed, it turned out to be sort of a trick-question tree, because there wasn’t anything wrong with it. “Look at the overall layout of the tree,” Mr. Bishop said, instructing us always to perform a 360-degree examination before we start pruning. “We have a pretty even distribution of branches. Would you agree? Would you disagree?”

I had a couple of tree-pruning questions of my own but was too embarrassed to ask them in public. Instead I buttonholed Matthew Wells, the Parks Department’s director of tree preservation, during the subsequent problem-trees slide-show presentation.

I’d heard there were right and wrong times of the year to prune. And even though I doubted the average tree, even my temperamental Calleries, would wilt and die if I severed the wrong sucker, I wanted an expert’s opinion. “Traditionally, you prune a tree out of leaf,” he explained, meaning that it’s best not to tax their healing powers in spring when they need all their energy to produce leaves.

I thought you had to prune in the dead of winter, but he said that pruning in the mid-to-late summer, “when the tree has plenty of resources,” is also acceptable.

I also had at least one wacky question. I wondered whether trees talked to each other. Perhaps not literally. But I thought I’ve noticed a couple of contiguous mature maples behind our house that, as tall and expansive as they got, manage to avoid their branches overlapping—as if they’re giving each other personal space.

Mr. Wells said that’s unlikely, though he mentioned a phenomenon called allelopathy, where certain trees, plants and fungi, though not my backyard maples, shoot defensive chemicals into the ground to inhibit the growth of competitors.

He doubted my trees were exercising any special etiquette. He said that trees tend to be as rude as the rest of us. “One of their survival strategies is to get bigger than everything else around them.”

A version of this article appeared October 11, 2012, on page A22 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Going Out on a Limb.


Written by vaphc

October 11, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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