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Garden Variety: Plant Amnesty Teaches Impacts of Bad Pruning By RON SULLIVAN

Friday March 10, 2006

End the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs! Yes, they mean it and no, they don’t lack a sense of humor. They’re serious, not solemn. Their website features a gallery of pruning atrocities, and some are hilarious. 

They might be accused of having a prejudice against topiary, but when you see their examples of silly pruning you have to laugh and agree that topiary (like “cloud” pruning, or the mow-n-blow powershears special) can be excuses for some really silly green things in the landscape.  

They’re Plant Amnesty. They’re based in Seattle, and as far as I know their attempt to colonize the Bay Area with a separate chapter has been futile, but they do have members here: I’m one. 

What I fell for is their determination to spread the word about what seems to be a little-known problem threatening the urban “forest”—criminally bad pruning—with verve and good works. If you have a tree, you need to hear from them before you lay a hand on it—or let anyone else do so.  

It’s not just the looks of your tree that’s at stake. Bad pruning, including topping, stubbing, and just plain overdoing, can cost you serious money and worse. 

If the sentence “When done properly, branches are cut back to a lateral branch at least one-third the diameter of the limb being removed and large enough to outgrow lateral branches directly below,” sounds confusing, stop right there. You’re no more ready to use that saw than you are to do amateur brain surgery. 

You’re also in danger of paying to let someone who doesn’t know any more than you do to vandalize your trees and set you up for a lawsuit, as well as lowering your property’s value. How’s that for concrete results?  

Here’s my advice, free: If a tree service even advertises topping, don’t hire them. If your landscapers can’t explain why topping’s wrong, don’t let them mess with your tree. And if you have a neighbor who lets anyone top a tree or cut branches to stubs, contact Plant Amnesty for aid in warning them. They’re threatening everyone in reach to the tree.  

Topped trees often die slow deaths, as their formidable power to ward off rot—trees don’t heal the way animals do—can’t catch up with infections from such massive wounds. 

Badly pruned trees do, too, and when they don’t, they grow branches that aren’t as strongly attached as the originals, and tend to fall off to the detriment of the tree and whoever or whatever’s underneath it. 

Whoever hired the bad pruner can be sued for damages, and so can future owners, like one Florida landlord whose insurance carrier paid $500,000.00 to a 12-year-old for the landlord’s share of responsibility—less than half—for the tree-climbing accident that paralyzed the boy.  

Topping trees in actually illegal in some places, including San Francisco. If you have a neighbor who allows topping or ugly pruning, contact Plant Amnesty for useful materials to persuade otherwise.