Shaping trees to meet our needs

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, October 18, 2000

The old crabapple tree tips at a crazy angle, branches pointed down when they should be reaching skywards and a flash of bright white in the middle of a gray maze of trunks and branches. Something has gone dramatically wrong.

Scratches and tears show that this was the work of a bearishly shaped creature, with enough weight to crack the flexible framework of the tree. Luckily this is not the first tree ever broken, nor the only time broken trees have been treated. We have a centuries old tradition of shaping plants to our needs.

Trees in the wild do not have the luxury of caring hands, and they recover. They might look like huge bushy clumps, the broken ends might rot into the heart of the plant, eventually causing the collapse of the trunk, but they live. They can still bloom, set fruit and send their all important seeds out into the larger world to make more crabapple trees.

Trees can be seen as communities, all branches growing toward the light, each arranging itself to harvest the most energy possible. The one that does so the most efficiently will rule, shading out lower ones, and then pouring down hormonal suppressant to keep itself primary.

We humans who work with trees, or their lower growing and more shrubby cousins use these attributes to guide and control the plants, to shape them for our own purposes.

We choose which will lead and by how much, we bend and twist the branches to create open, orderly, productive fruit trees. We cut off the tops forcing a mass sprouting which widens the shape when we want a hedge. We make trees act like vines by bending young flexible branches along walls or fences, where they will harden into permanent shapes.

The reasons we do these things are as varied as our situations, some are for maximum fruit production, ornamental designs inspire others, and some are for developing particular shaped pieces of wood, which are cut off and used for something else. Foresters were originally the people who bent and shaped the living trees to become the ribs and keels of the great sailing ships.

Our domestic needs may not be the same as the national defense requirements of Elizabethan England, but the ability to shape living plants to suit our requirements is used every day. Gated hedges, erosion controlling groundcovers and even the idea of a flower-filled yard are manipulations of the natural shapes and patterns. Using natural tendencies of the plants and working with them is efficient as well as being fun. We feel our kinship with the plant world when we shape it to fit our needs; it is as if our relatives are gathered around us, keeping us warm and helping us do our work.

These members of our family, the trees, shrubs and other landscape elements have no defense against the pruning saw or hedge trimmers. Improper cutting can take decades to overcome, and in many cases may permanently ruin a lovely tree. Working with the essence of the plant's patterns, guiding it along its natural paths will give harmonious results.

Last week we helped a woman create a sight and sound screen for her home. She lives 30 feet from a busy road and her large picture window looks right into the traffic. Margaret laid out a series of intersecting screens of red-leafed maple and native hemlock that will all be pruned to keep them dense and manageable. These layers of vegetation will allow her to feel private within her yard. They provide an intermediate scene that she can look at and the passing motorists can see without feeling the direct eye-to-eye contact that is so jarring.

Fifteen years ago we planted one of these same "Crimson King" Maples against a large blank stone wall and trained it like a vine. This grew rapidly and within six or eight years covered the wall in a sheet of dark red every summer. When the leaves fell, the shapes of branches were revealed against stone. The effect was dramatic, and made the wall an attractive feature at all seasons.

Training roses over garden gates, cutting grass to make it spread into a turf lawn, planting Sitka Roses between two logs to control the direction of their spread, or trimming a Sitka Spruce every year so that it stays ten feet tall and bushy as a porcupine, are all methods of interacting with our personal landscapes. We shape their bodies, they shape our lives. It is an even exchange.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

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