Conifer Pruning Styles

By Leah Alcyon
The Greek Column Cut conifer pruning style pays homage to the Parthenon in Athens
The Greek Column Cut conifer pruning style pays homage to the Parthenon in Athens

Learn about the highly-distinctive pruning style of the Humboldt-Huggers for conifers.

Coneheads love to use aesthetic pruning techniques to showcase their conifers to maximum effect and beauty. Certified aesthetic pruners may be employed to visit a garden and bring out the best in any woody plant that is not up to snuff. The ACS works closely with the Aesthetic Pruners Association, and, for those of you who are not familiar with this wonderful approach to conifer maintenance and enhancement, we encourage you to attend future ACS National Meetings with demonstrations by highly skilled professionals.

As with any art form, aesthetic pruning has a range of styles, and these styles run the gamut from delighting the masses to tickling merely the fancy of a few. I have recently relocated to my childhood home of Humboldt County, California, where the locals practice their own, highly distinctive interpretation of aesthetic pruning that I call Humboldt-Huggers, or HH.

HH is so named due to the narrow geographic range of the art: Humboldt County, CA. Even more specifically, the HH aesthetic is centered in the city of Arcata, the epicenter of tree-hugging in America. HH is only practiced on the Sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood tree, large, native stands of which are found in abundance in this area.

Pinus monticola ‘Crawford’ conifer at the home of Sara Malone. Aesthetic pruning done the right way by Maryann Lewis, a certifed aesthetic pruner
Pinus monticola ‘Crawford’ conifer at the home of Sara Malone. Aesthetic pruning done the right way by Maryann Lewis, a certifed aesthetic pruner

Pruning Logic

One might wonder why a redwood tree would need to be pruned at all. These trees are hearty pillars of nature’s engineering and, together, create magical forests. The second growth in the Arcata Community Forest, last logged extensively in the 1950s, is filled with robust trees towering 80+ feet. The redwood tree’s raison d’etre is to be the tallest it can be, to send roots horizontally as far as possible (preferably into water and sewer systems) and to sprout copiously from its stump.

People, who struggle to observe nature closely, miss the 15-foot diameter stumps, which dot the forest floor. Gazing upwards, observers are also astounded by the ascending new trunks as they disappear into the fog. The fog is one of the marvels of this area; impenetrable, persistent, and depressing, yet vital to the natural ecology of the redwood.

Most people love the redwood forests, but the trees become a problem for those who decide to build houses in the forest and then wonder why their gardens don’t grow. Herein lies the birth of the HH-aesthetic; the need to resolve the conflict between loving redwoods and wanting to have sun. Follow the descriptions below to see the pruning styles that are used to marry these seemingly opposing desires.

On the left: a recently pruned conifer; on the right: a bushy shrub, one year after pruning
On the left: a recently pruned conifer; on the right: a bushy shrub, one year after pruning

The Klub Kut

Another name for this style is the Titus Andronicus cut: essentially the gruesome and brutal removal of everything that makes a tree a tree, until the tragedy ends because you are sick to your stomach. (Refer to Shakespeare’s play of the same name if you want more gory detail.) Mission accomplished, and, like Shakespeare, it’s art! But this cut is just as perfectly named Klub Kut. It makes no sense when the perpetrators are treehuggers, but as one Klub Member stated: “I love redwoods, and this Kut looks so Kute!”

What is left behind grows into a delightful pipe cleaner with a fluffy top, according to the aficionados of this cut. Personally, I would rather see the tree removed completely, as Demetrius and Chiron removed Lavinia’s body parts, but, apparently, I am in the minority. Let us continue.

Above on the left is a recently butchered tree, topped and stripped of all the branches. On the right is the tree a year after pruning, with the lateral sprouts turning the pole into a tight, a bushy shrub.

The Cat O’ Nine Cut conifer pruning style
The Cat O’ Nine Cut conifer pruning style

The Cat O’Nine Cut

Redwoods have a base that can support several trunks. When there are more than three trunks in a group which are cut to the same height, this is The Cat O’ Nine Cut. The lower branches can be removed, or they can be left behind, depending on the budget of the homeowner. Perhaps the branches are weapons that supply the neighborhood arsenal?

The Greek Column Cut

Those landowners. whose community restrictions prohibit the removal or dismemberment of redwoods, can always select The Greek Column Cut. This cut simply strips all lower branches of the tree up as high as the pruner is brave enough to climb, or, as his pole saw will reach. The cut’s name nods to the grandiose trunks left behind that remind us of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, and other classical buildings. Or, maybe, they just remind us that they live in a dark forest.

I have learned a lot about aesthetic pruning from watching demos, talking with pruners, and reviewing before- and after-photos. I think, though, that I already know as much as I want to know about the HH-aesthetic. What it makes me want to do is what good tree-huggers do: go out and hug those poor mutilated trees!

Photographs by Leah Alcyon.

Leah Alcyon is a retired industrial hygienist, recently moved back to Humboldt County, California, land of the redwoods. She enjoys conifers with her mother, Carol, and will plant one Sequoia sempervirens ‘Loma Prieta Spike’.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.

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