Fast-growing trees like sycamores, sorrels and red oaks can be a real hassle for tree maintenance and utility professionals. When they overgrow, they become power-outage and safety risks for entire neighborhoods. Tree-related issues are a leading nationwide cause of such outages, according to the Tree Care Industry Association.)
On the other hand, homeowners often want the trees on their properties to be left alone as much as possible. Here’s how to strike a reasonable balance between essential maintenance and preservation (and look out for the safety of tree professionals and homeowners alike):
Determine Frequency and Time of Past Pruning
After front-yard shade trees are first planted, they should ideally be pruned on a regular basis for the first few years of their life. As noted by the Arbor Day Foundation, this tree trimming practice helps encourage healthy growth for the foreseeable future. Also, according to the University of Missouri’s Department of Horticulture, mid- to late spring is the best time of year for pruning young and established or mature shade trees. ( Frequency of trimming declines with the tree’s age, but never becomes entirely unnecessary.)
But when you encounter a particular tree, there’s no guarantee that either the house’s owner or a previous tree services provider dealt with this routinely. Take the time to learn as much as possible before you get started on any pruning of your own. (The only reasonable exception would be hazardous situations requiring immediate action as defined by the Utility Arborists Association – e.g., an overgrowth or loose limb that’s caused a critical power failure or is about to.)
If the tree has been properly pruned in years past at proper intervals and times of year, it’ll most likely be a straightforward trimming job. You’ll also have a better chance of walking that tightrope between safe utility function and homeowner satisfaction.
Eliminate Key Hazards
Trimming priorities vary by age, per UM’s Horticulture Department:
- New trees: Cut branches with narrow-angle crotches as soon as possible, unless they’re at one-third of the tree’s height or lower, in which case they can remain for one to two years. (Narrow-angle branches are always weaker, but early on, all branches contribute to trunk strength.)
- Young trees: Prioritize removal of all dead, dying, weak or narrow-crotch branches, as these can most easily jeopardize power lines (and the safety of residential pedestrians).
- Mature trees: To minimize trunk damage, prune only one area of the tree’s top each year unless absolutely necessary. Additionally, coating the trunk area where a large limb was just removed with light water-based paint may be wise to prevent sunscald that kills tree bark.
Avoid Topping at All Costs
Many tree care business associations strongly discourage topping: The UAA states as much in its utility tree pruning brochure, while the TCIA considers it “unacceptable” in its A300 standard for tree maintenance. Nevertheless, it has become somewhat common in some areas of the business, perhaps because it represents a “shotgun approach” of eliminating all possible problem areas on a mature tree: All smaller branches are severed, and even the major branches are severely trimmed.
Topping definitely gets rid of branches causing severe power-line damage – but its advantages stop there. It’s absolutely appalling to look at, as almost any homeowner will tell you. Moreover, it exposes the tree to insect infestation, blight and storm damage, while also making it a safety risk. Topping is so broadly discouraged by experts that the TCIA states outright removal may be both safer and less aesthetically unpleasant. Proper pruning on a regular basis will help prevent topping from even being floated as an option.
When your tree service company hears about fast-growing trees jeopardizing power lines, it goes without saying that the risk factor your firm must undertake is higher. DIY pruning is a huge risk for homeowners in this circumstance and you should inform your customers to not attempt to clear lines without hiring a professional. Even certified arborists who haven’t undergone a TCIA-administered Electrical Hazards Awareness Program shouldn’t come within less than 10 feet of lines, and collaboration with the local power company will be essential to ensure proper management of the situation.
By properly maintaining fast growing trees near utility lines, arborists can help prevent a number of incidents from happening. Regular pruning of trees is crucial to keeping power lines from being downed during major storms, such as hurricanes, and will help make recovery efforts more manageable should any trees be severely damaged. Additionally, regularly pruning fast growing trees can help prevent major disasters such as wildfires. For instance in July 2019, an audit found California’s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. responsible for more than 1,500 wildfires due to 3,280 high-risk trees that PG&E’s contractors did not properly maintain.