Arborists cut to the chase in pruning season

 Arborists cut to the chase in pruning season
Rick Wheeler prunes a persimmon tree in a Torrance backyard after inspecting it for health and growth. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Certified arborist Rick Wheeler stands beneath a persimmon tree in a Torrance backyard and surveys the bare branches. Then he raises his shears and carefully starts snipping.

He spots a crossing branch. "We'll get rid of that," he says. Then he lops off another branch. "That one's getting a bit too long in the tooth."


This is a favorite time of year for the owner of Island Mountain Tree & Plant Services, his grandson, general manager Peter Bernal, and their small crew. It's prime time for pruning deciduous fruit and ornamental trees, and they are busy visiting yards throughout Southern California to get dormant trees in shape.

This year, though, warm weather has some fruit trees budding earlier than usual. "We're coming up against it now," Wheeler says.

When Wheeler — who also teaches classes on pruning — approaches a tree, he looks to see how high it is and how far he'll be bringing it down. He looks at the health of the tree and at the length of the new growth. This will tell him if the homeowner is watering and fertilizing properly. He also offers advice on tree care.

As part of a pruning job, he and his crew clean out dead, diseased and crossed branches, which can rub against each other and create entryways for pests and disease.

And they thin out the wood on fruit trees so a tree will produce fewer but larger pieces of fruit. "I'd rather have 10 pieces of fruit that are the size of a baseball than 30 that are the size of a golf ball," Wheeler says.

"The majority of what we do is encourage the tree to grow properly and produce fruit," Bernal says.

One pet peeve of Wheeler's and other certified arborists is seeing trees that have been the victim of topping — in which branches are indiscriminately cut to stubs or cut improperly.

You only want to remove a certain amount of a tree's leaf-bearing crown — no more than about 25%, he says. A tree's leaves provide its nutrition, and removing too many can starve the tree and make it vulnerable to disease and pests.

Tips on choosing an arborist

When hiring an arborist, choose a professional who understands how to prune your trees to maintain their health, appearance and safety. The International Society of Arboriculture, which certifies arborists, recommends that you:

Look for ISA certification and membership in professional tree-care organizations.

Ask for proof of insurance, including personal and property damage insurance, as well as workers' compensation insurance.

Check for permits and licenses required of contractors in your area.


Request references and don't hesitate to check them and visit sites where the company has performed work.

Get more than one estimate, and don't always accept the lowest bid. Be wary of individuals who go door to door and offer bargains on tree work.

Hands-on classes in pruning trees and shrubs

Southern California botanical gardens, nurseries and others are offering classes this weekend and next month on tree and shrub pruning.

Basic tree and shrub pruning workshop for homeowners. Certified arborist Rebecca Latta is teaching this class on when, how and why to prune. Lecture, demonstration and hands-on practice. Participants should bring hand pruners. $25 for members, $30 for nonmembers. Los Angeles County Arboretum, Arcadia. 10 a.m. to noon. Saturday, Jan. 25.

Fruit tree pruning demonstration. Certified arborist and Island Mountain Tree & Plant Services owner Rick Wheeler will demonstrate the basics of pruning fruit trees. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Included in garden admission fee. South Coast Botanic Garden, Palos Verdes Peninsula. 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26.

Fruit tree pruning basics. Demonstration of fruit tree pruning principles. Free. All Armstrong Garden Center locations. 11 a.m. Feb. 1.

Pruning native trees and shrubs. Certified arborist Rebecca Latta will talk about which native trees and shrubs should be pruned and why, when and how to make good cuts. $25 for members, $35 for nonmembers. Lecture, demonstration and hands-on practice. Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley. 9 to 11 a.m. Feb. 15.

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