The Cut Above

A peach tree pruned. 

On the winter days that aren’t too frozen or wet you can generally find me up a ladder cutting away on the trees.

Here in the Pacific Northwest I like to start pruning deciduous trees in January. This way [when they wake up] a lot of their growth will be in response to the cuts that were made. This is a fun part of the training process with plants. You cut, they grow.

I’ve cut over 20 trees this winter and that’s if you only count the fruit trees. I’m not an arborist, but I can prune large bushes or small garden trees. It’s just that I literally reach my limit at about 15 feet.

Here are some before and after pictures from one of my favorite gardens to work in.

The truth is, I do get a bit of an adrenalin rush from climbing and cutting. The other truth is that I’m trying to be smarter as I get older by keeping the trees as small as possible. This is something most people can understand when it comes to fruit trees. You don’t want them to get so high that the fruit are difficult to get to or too big if they’re in a garden with limited space. You can also apply this treatment to other garden trees. The Japanese call this Niwaki. What I do is not traditional Niwaki but, I do try to borrow the concept and techniques.

Niwaki is Japanese for garden trees.

When you first see it you’re impression might be that it’s a giant bonsai. I hear that a lot but, bonsai actually  translates to “planted in a container”.  I don’t correct people when they say that because I know what they’re referring to. It’s a style that’s based on a concept of plants and their forms. My very basic western understanding of it is as a way  to treat and train trees specifically to be in the garden.

Bridget's phone 265
Does living along the Pacific Rim give me an understanding of Japanese culture? My magic 8 ball says, “Yes!”

In Japanese garden design, everything is done for effect.

The intent is always to enhance the perspective (and experience) of the person viewing the garden. This can be either from a distance (a view through a window) or for a person within the space of the garden.

For some people the cultural divide is too much,

“They torture the trees!”

Yes, that’s one way of looking at it, but I don’t see it as a mean thing. Part of what they’re trying to do is to add the appearance of age. This is seen as a way to invoke emotions, mainly sentimentality. So you might cut branches to cause them to thicken, bend a limb to make it look gnarled  or strip off parts of the bark to expose the white wood beneath. It’s seeing life’s scars as worthy of being held up to the light and venerated as a part of it’s beauty and breadth of experience. What better way to express this than with trees?

There are other deciduous trees to prune in early winter, but first, a story about dormant trees.


One year I was pruning a few garden trees for my friend and fellow gardener: a Magnolia and a Styrax Obassia. When we were done for the day I noticed a Styrax Japonica that hadn’t had the need of much pruning through the years. We could both see that there were a few small branches that were not adding to the beauty of the tree and it’s multiple trunks.

“Let’s cut them!”

Unbeknownst to me, this tree was starting to wake up. The cut started to run like a faucet and lasted for days, eventually forming a puddle on the ground. My friend was in a bit of a panic and so was I. Was the tree being drained of it’s life-force? It was really a terrible feeling. I went home, got online and typed something like, “I cut on a tree and now it won’t stop dripping!”

There is a warm weather phenomenom called ‘positive root pressure’.

When a tree is first coming out of dormancy it starts drawing water up from it’s roots. This causes pressure to build up in the trees circulatory system. This pressures helps the buds to break but, until there are leaves to absorb the water, there’s nowhere for the water to go, so it just keeps circulating through the tree. Cutting the tree at this time gives the water a place to go and the effect is literally like opening a faucet. This can even occur to trees that haven’t been cut. Unusually warm weather can force liquid out through the pores in the trees bark!

 The good news is that this doesn’t hurt the trees. As soon as they leaf out the water has a place to go, the tree stops dripping and the wound heals. The only lasting issue could be that there is a bit of sap present in the water [and] in certain trees this can discolor the bark and look unsightly.


So, with that said, the time to prune dormant decidous trees has drawn to a close. Don’t worry though, once they’ve leafed-out we can start snipping again!….

….There is so much more to write about Niwaki but, I will save it for when it’s time to cut the pines!228(1)


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6 thoughts on “The Cut Above

  1. Good job, as always, Bridget. AND so informative! I never knew these things about trees! Looking forward to the next blog….MOM

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