Toad in the Hole

April 17, 2006

The Arrogant Arborist #1

As some might know, I'm a tree pruner by vocation. I had to quit doing it for money when my lungs smacked me upside the head, to mash a metaphor, but I do know a thing or two about it. The guy I mostly studied and apprenticed with, Dennis Makishima, calls his method "Aesthetic Pruning," and I haven't found a better way to name it. It combined traditional Japanese pruning and bonsai practice with the knowledge of tree anatomy and physiology that Alex Shigo and his students have made public in the last few decades. Not nearly public enough, in my opinion, but not for lack of trying. I think the problem's not so much with the serious professionals, who have by now probably studied Shigo at least a little, but with people who think they don't need to know anything more than which end of a saw to grip before they go out and mutilate a tree.

It might surprise some to know that this is the subject upon which I hold my strongest opinions. I'm not alone; Plant Amnesty in Seattle actually organizes people like me, and prosyletizes when possible.

I'm not above scowling at experienced Japanese pruners. Sometimes they do things that make my nose wrinkle too.

There's a civic Japanese-style garden in Hayward, a few towns south of here. The pruning is probably done by some dedicated volunteer out of some high-minded spirit of service, and it's probably someone I've met or heard about and I might even get zinged for scowling about it. But.

Actually, I rather like this tree. It's probably the damnedest thing I've ever seen done with Mexican weeping pine, and the effect is great:


Normally that species is pretty much Christmas-tree shaped.

The problem is that the whole garden is done that way!


It's monomaniacal. Joe calls it all "Truffula Trees."

I really don't think it shows the true-cedars to their best advantage:


And those tight, crowded twig pads can't be healthy.


Trees like air circulation, and leaves need light!

Besides, it looks silly.

Soemtimes it's just a hoot, like this angular-corkscrew pine limb:


And sometimes it looks Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short.


There is such a thing as "cloud style" pruning, used for background stuff and shrubs like azaleas, where you want a mass of flowers to dazzle the eye in season. But that's not what's going on here. What scares me is that this is doubtless being seen as some sort of example of what a well-pruned garden of trees should be. Yikes.

Posted at April 17, 2006 04:33 AM


we lived in japan, and i like seeing that style of pruning now and then. but in japan, most gardens are postage-stamp sized, not park-sized. japanese parks prune some of the small stuff, but there is a huge streak of respect for nature that leaves bigger things looking natural.

there are many japanese families in our area here. my baby sister calls those pruned trees "dr. seuss bushes" -- they remind her of her favorite childhood books.

Posted by: kathy a at April 18, 2006 12:51 AM

Here's the interesting thing, Kathy: if Japanese-style pruning (excepting "cloud" form) is done right, you can't tell the tree's been pruned at all. It looks as if it just grew that way.

Posted by: Ron at April 18, 2006 03:19 AM

Well it's interesting, but like you said, too much in one place!

Posted by: Rurality at April 18, 2006 01:21 PM

Yeah, Ru', monotonous as well as inappropriate. I think I'm goint to put some pruning stuff here over the next few months. The basics aren't that difficult, and everyone should know them.

Posted by: Ron at April 19, 2006 06:31 AM

heya Ron
unrelated to your post (which is really kinda cool:) just a thank you for being so damn nice. Today is better than yesterday. Made a series of hideously bad decisions regarding one of those guys that... shit. if you opened up the book of "men to avoid" there'd be a picture. and an accompanying essay. Ego shattered to nothingness. Yesterday being the morning after the ego didnít just take a tumble, was kicked, hard, while it was down. Sorry for the over emotional nature of the posts. A lot of vodka last night helped. A bit :)

Have been in hcm for 18 months, will be here for another 18months /2 years. Or something like that. I might tuck my tail between my legs at any unspecified time, and find some other corner of the developing world to hide in. Work at a university here, and getting it together to start the PhD. Getting there. Slowly:)
Anyway... I don't know. I really appreciated your asking how I was. That whole kindness of strangers thing. Tis very true. Caroline

Posted by: cc at April 20, 2006 03:36 AM

I've seen trees which look like that, but they've been victimized by deer.

Posted by: Pony at April 21, 2006 08:19 PM

Hello Ron,

Or shall I say, 'Konnichiwa!' I lived in Japan for four years while I was in the military. I now operate a tree trimming service in Kansas.
I had some experience working as a saw hand on a logging crew in East Texas. After an ice storm hit my town, wreaking havoc on all the trees, I went out to make some extra money by removing broken limbs, downed trees, etc.

I am very 'green' to the business, but I love climbing, and trimming trees, and I want to do it correctly. I have some books on pruning, and trees. I am also joining the I.S.A. this month. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to practice as an arborist in Japan? My wife is Japanese, and that gives me a little advantage as far as starting a business there. Thank You.

Posted by: Andy Anderson at May 15, 2006 12:22 AM

Hi, Andy. Funny thing: I know someone who apprenticed for a short time with an arborist company in Japan, though with the intention of sharpening her practice here rather than staying. Give me a few days to find her current e-mail address and I'll get back to you.

Offhand, I'd suggest trying to get an apprentice spot and then, after learning what you can, moving to a smaller town so you're not bucking the apprenticeship system and the market. And when your wife tells you how to act towards these guys, listen to her. It can be hard to get used to.

ISA is a good start; I hope some of the books you have are by Shigo or his students. Oh -- learn hand tools rather than just chainsaw techniques if you want to practice in Japan.

And good luck!

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at May 15, 2006 03:34 AM