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Lion Tailing

If you're ready to get the shears out, a reminder that some pruning methods might do more harm than good. Angela O'Callaghan tells us about one method in particular:

LiontailedI spent the past weekend doing some of the pruning that I’d been avoiding since last year. I was really only trying to clean up some of the extra branches on my fruit trees; I haven’t even looked at taking care of the roses yet. That’s for another day, since they’re kind of a special case.

Late winter (up to about mid-February in the southwest) is the best time to groom and prune deciduous plants – those’re the ones that drop their leaves when it gets cold. There are a lot of good reasons for pruning a plant, get rid of any broken or rubbing branches, increase the amount of fruit or flowers in spring, or raise the canopy so you don’t get impaled when you walk underneath. In general, you’re trying to get rid of whatever branches make the plant less attractive. It’s rarely essential to plant life; it’s usually basic grooming.

When I came to Las Vegas years ago, I started a photo collection I called the tortured palm series. You’ve seen those palms – a couple of fronds poking out from the top of a tall shaggy log. Some look worse than others, depending on the landscaper.  It didn’t take very long before I changed the title to the tortured landscape series. I can’t put in every agonized tree or suffering shrub in the valley; there are simply too many.

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To be included, it has to be more than simple bad pruning.

It has to be something terrible, like the lion-tailed pines on Rancho Boulevard. In fact, if I were going to have a contest for the worst thing anyone could do to a landscape plant, these would be at the top of the list or very close to it.

Lion-tailing is one of the stranger practices that people inflict on defenseless plants. It’s topiary gone mad. If you’ve seen it, you might have asked yourself “how could a plant be sheared so much that it looks like a big green poodle?”; and more importantly, why? It really does make the tree look like it’s got poodle cut.

It’s not the most common kind of plant sculpture out there. No doubt that has something to do with amount of labor involved. Usually, when you see a lion-tailed plant, it’s an olive tree. I have no idea why it started; maybe it increased the fruit yield. Even though we don’t produce a lot of olives here in southern Nevada, the lion-tailing practice continues.

Aside from the fact that it’s a maintenance nightmare, there’re many good reasons to avoid lion-tailing a tree. For one thing, all the smaller branches on the limbs are removed, leaving a pompom. When you cut a branch so that you’re topping it, you get a big cluster of growth at the very end of the limb. That’s a lot of weight for one naked branch to carry. Really, all you need is a single heavy wind or rainfall, and it’ll be on the round, leaving a big tear on the tree.

You might have figured out that I’m not a big fan of this practice, but at least with olive, or any tree that has smaller oval leaves, it looks like it’s been cared for. Some trees tend to grow so the branches are spreading out. The tree can be considerably wider than tall. There you have a chance of getting the desired lion-tails.

On an evergreen conifer, that’s not what happens. Clearly the ones on Rancho Boulevard were somebody’s experiment. Somebody who had no idea what they were doing.  Pines grow up, not out. Their natural shape is conical. Cutting the tops off and denuding branches except for some needles at the end, is absolutely the worst possible thing you could do.  No lion tails; no pompoms. The resulting plants look broken and shabby, anything but well groomed. Sadly, they’re really only good for entry into the tortured landscape series.

For KNPRs Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

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