Dr. Shigo and tree pruning

Attila Soos

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I recently purchased Dr. Shigo's book Tree pruning, a worldwide photo guide. This book is mostly pictures, showing the results of his decades of research on tree pruning.

I have to admit that after reading the book I am totally guilt-ridden, and emotionally torn.:eek:
On the one hand, I love and appreciate bonsai. On the other hand, many of accepted bonsai practices go entirely against Dr. Shigo's research results.

The two main areas of controversy are "Flush cuts" and "Toppings". In bonsai we extensivey use both. We cut the branches with concave cutter (or spherical cutter) for aesthetic reasons: to prevent the formation of buldges and stubs. In Shigo's view flush cuts are the worst, since it prevents the tree from properly compartmentalize the damaged and infected area. Flush cut destroys the tree's defense system and the tree will struggle all its life to overcome this.

The correct way to cut a branch is to remove it at the end of the "branch collar" (this is a small swelling at the base of the branch). The problem is that if we do this on a bonsai, the tree will end up with a swelling at the site of the removed branch.

Same with trunk chops. According to Shigo, trunk chop causes the inevitable rotting of the inner wood. And he has pictures to prove it. Topping also destroys the dignity of the tree (he often mentions this notion of "tree dignity").

So, now, when I look at my field-grown collection of bonsai material, and think of the multiple trunk-chops, flush cuts, and countless other forms of scarring and mutilations, I can't help but see them as disease-ridden, crippled creatures, robbed of their dignity, and desperately struggling to survive. And if I had a way to see a cross-section of these little trees, I would probably see all the dark spots, and dead trunks impregnated with rot-causing fungi.

How is this compatible with our love of trees? Or it may be that all this love is just plain hypocrisy: we don't really love the trees, we just love the IDEA of a tree and what this idea represents. If we really loved the tree, we wouldn't harm them to such extent. I am not implying that trees have conscience and they suffer because of us. But it is the inevitable truth that in the process of shaping a nice trunk with lots of character, a large portion of the tree becomes infected, sick, damaged, and dead.

We cause all this harm to the tree to seek aesthetic pleasure.

I have to admit, that when I work on creating field-grown material, I am rather ruthless in chopping, cutting, and shaping my material, with total disregard to the tree's needs - other than keeping the tree alive. In light of all the poetry and often spiritual approach to bonsai, is such a treatment ethical?

Dr. Shigo's findings are often in conflict with arborists. In many cases, arborist perform these practices knowing that they are harmful, but also aware that their business needs these techiques in order to survive.

My question is this: do you think that we should change our bonsai practices in order to produce healthier and happier trees - even at the expense of aesthetic requirements of bonsai? Or may be the end result justifies the means?

One thing is sure: regardless of whether I change my practices in the future, I will be much more aware of what I am doing to my trees. And that will inevitably lead to subtle changes in what I do to them.

(The picture below shows the dire effect of a trunk chop, and is from the website: http://www.ci.palm-coast.fl.us/resident/pcparadise/trimming.htm)
 

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J W

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Is it not in most people's mind to work a tree to have a visual image of a tree that has withstood many hard winter's, harsh hot summer's and triumphed but still show's it's scar's from these season's of it's life?

I had a business doing tree work, once you attempt to do any work on a tree you are in essence giving it more time to live by removing branches and damaging the actual health of the tree in that section of it's tissue. Example removing large branches that might break in a storm and hit a house or car. Then from there your just trying to remove the dead tissue and start the annual maintenance.

I agree some cut's and techniques do more harm than good, I also feel we should study and learn these so we know how this will effect the tree. Then in doing this we can give the best help to this tree after we have done the actual damage to it.

The person that taught me to climb tree's and taught me the business told me repeatedly. If you change or alter the tree in any way your damaging it. But so does a wind storm and seeing a tree that has survived a major wind storm and shows it's scar's always triggers a moment of awe and respect in my mind.

JW
 

Attila Soos

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Thanks J.W, I like your reply very much.

The question though still lingers in my mind: it is one thing to admire a tree that withstood and survived the trials of life. But somehow it is not the same, when we put the tree through near-death experiences and then admire it when it survives.

The first scenario is to work with a yamadori and admire it for it's rugged beauty. The second one (putting a tree through the trials of life ourselves, and then admiring the result) is similar to making a cat happy by squeezing its tail and then letting it go. When we finally let the cat go, it will indeed be very happy. It sounds a little...how should I put it...perverse?:) It is very touching to find our cat after he survived a hurricane, but would it be the same if we created the hurricane in the first place, just for the sake of enjoying the happy reunion?
But I am just playing devil's advocate here. I don't pretend that I know the answer.

Your point that every time we alter a tree, we basically damage it, and we need to learn how to give the best help after the damage, is very eloquent.
 
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Bill S

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It's a bit out there unless you are heavy into hinduism (I think), and not as to insult you, but don't do any reading on where your food comes from, it'll be a conundrum you might not get past.:eek:
 

Attila Soos

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It's a bit out there unless you are heavy into hinduism (I think), and not as to insult you, but don't do any reading on where your food comes from, it'll be a conundrum you might not get past.:eek:
You may have misunderstood my point.

I do not say that we are torturing trees. I do not say that trees suffer because of us. I do not believe that we should never harm other living things - as hinduism does. Sometimes harming other living things is unavoidable - such as in the case of producing our food. And I do plenty of reading about our food sources.

What I am saying is that it may be a bit "strange" that in the name of loving trees and loving nature, we first damage them and expose them to all kind of desease, often destroy them and leave them hanging for live by a thin thread, and then "admire" their beauty and capacity to survive.

This is the question here: how do we bonsaists respond to his advice?

It may be that those people who love trees and nature in their natural state, have a reason to find this treatment somewhat questionable.

Getting back to the context of this thread, this question came up in my mind after reading Dr. Shigo's advice to NEVER do flush cuts and NEVER top a tree. Since I ALLWAYS do flush cuts, and OFTEN do trunk chops, the dilemma is inevitable. Do I purposely ignore his advice, or I simply do not believe him? It must be one or the other.

This is the question here: how do we bonsaists respond to his advice? Besides its philosophical implications, it is a very practical question. Are we ignoring this science, or just don't believe in it?
 
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Mortalis

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As small as most of the wounds we create are most trees will heal over before any real damage is done.
 

Attila Soos

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As small as most of the wounds we create are most trees will heal over before any real damage is done.
This is a good point, and I think herein lies the compromise. As long as we do small and gradual changes to the tree material, no great harm is done to the tree. This speaks in favor of proponens of those who advocate growing bonsai from very young material (or seed), over a very long period of time. If we do the whole process in a small container, we can slowly build a bonsai tree little by little, branch by branch, with no significant harm. I think King Kong was for this method.

Also good yamadori may fit the bill.

The trouble starts when we want to cut corners and want to create a large tree in a short time: large trunks, large chops, huge wounds, and carving in big volumes.

May be patience is the answer to create beauty and also respect the tree. May be we start crossing the line when we want it faster and cheaper and lose sight of what the tree needs.
Faster, cheaper, bigger...
 

J W

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I would think we fail when we kill the tree... Some of us (not me at this time) are completely capable of doing large drastic procedures and give the tree everything it needs to survive just fine. These people know if they do one procedure it will take the tree several seasons to be healthy enough again to work on and they give the tree that time. While others make bad decisions and stress a tree to death just by improper watering techniques.

I would strongly suggest if you have the knowledge or have the instructors around you to share the knowledge you will know what corners can be cut and can do the work you describe as "trouble". I would like to think that we all respect the tree's we work on. But in learning these techniques so many of us set out to do it all our selves and have instant bonsai so we do exactly what your describing. We read a story about chopping a tree. We chop it, we look at it and we wait a year. Then we realize hey I should of talked to some one about this or took a class or researched why I did this and what would happen to the tree and what does it need to survive. Then they give up on the tree and let it die or sell it at a club auction and they do not learn anything at all.

JW
 

Ang3lfir3

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Just a quick question....

What difference is there between me cutting off the top of a Juniper and a big rock coming rolling down from a hillside and smashing the top out of some ancient tree in the wild?

I'm just wondering how anything we do to trees to create the look of wild ancient trees is any different than what would happen to those same trees in the wild?
 

Ang3lfir3

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As small as most of the wounds we create are most trees will heal over before any real damage is done.
A lot of the wounds we create will never completely go away especially not in trees living in pots... It takes more than a few years for a 2" scar on a JBP in a pot to cover over.

But even more importantly... I don't want many of the wounds I create to be healed over. That after all was half the reason I created the wound... I wanted the trunk hollowed out for a reason or I wanted that shari on the the top of that root. many times its part of the design of the tree and as long as the tree is not put in any danger of dying then the tree is perfectly fine.

It is also important to remember that the heartwood on a tree is not alive... its only there for structural support which does not usually effect most bonsai. So if bugs eat away at it and it rotts away... good... it adds the vision of age... and survival... the tree doesn't know any different.
 

greerhw

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You're looking straight into a 2" scar on this JBP. I HATE large visable scars on my pines, so I just hide them with old bark from a couple of dead pines I picked up from a friend and one I killed, that I keep around for this reason, don't worry the Japanese do it all the time.

keep it green,
Harry
 

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Ang3lfir3

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That wasn't the point harry... but yes... gluing bark on is not a problem...
 

J W

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See you there you go Harry can and has the knowledge of a proven procedure... But you could at least share the scotch first next time Harry...

JW
 

Attila Soos

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Just a quick question....

What difference is there between me cutting off the top of a Juniper and a big rock coming rolling down from a hillside and smashing the top out of some ancient tree in the wild?
What is the difference between the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, or ordering an army commando unit to setting San Francisco on fire, demolishing a large number of buildings, and killing 10% of its population? One could do the latter and claim that "don't blame us, we just did what the earthquake will do sooner or later".

Or, I could run over your yappy dog with my car, and then claim that "it was an accident", I didn't see it.

The two examples are the same as the fate of your juniper: the first scenario is planned action, the second one is an accident. But you are saying that the two are interchangeable, since the result is the same.

I am not trying to be sarcastic, just trying to use the same logic as you.:) The only explanation for doing it to juniper and not doing it to people and animals is that we respect human and animal life much more than we respect the life of the tree.
 
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Ang3lfir3

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1. My dog is not Yappy
2. she would kick your car's @ss :p


we are talking about trees so lets keep it about trees... I'm just wondering how the effects on the tree are any different since the tree is not aware of how or by whom the act occured it simply reacts without feeling. If were to baby the trees and grow them with perfect care and no large wounds etc (I am talking about D trees here) then we have _at most_ the vision of an old tree. If all you want is visions of old trees growing perfectly in fields with no competition and no tornadoes or hurricanes or heavy snow or lightning or heavy winds... then by all means, go for it you will have some nice brooms. I'll stick to gnarly ancient looking trees that are treated well after major work and that only appear to be eeking out an existance.

just personal preference as I don't see the trees suffering from anything in bonsai culture.
 

Attila Soos

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A lot of the wounds we create will never completely go away especially not in trees living in pots... It takes more than a few years for a 2" scar on a JBP in a pot to cover over.

But even more importantly... I don't want many of the wounds I create to be healed over. That after all was half the reason I created the wound... I wanted the trunk hollowed out for a reason or I wanted that shari on the the top of that root. many times its part of the design of the tree and as long as the tree is not put in any danger of dying then the tree is perfectly fine.

It is also important to remember that the heartwood on a tree is not alive... its only there for structural support which does not usually effect most bonsai. So if bugs eat away at it and it rotts away... good... it adds the vision of age... and survival... the tree doesn't know any different.
So, our response to Dr. Shigo would be:

We, bonsaists, do not want a healty tree. A healthy tree is mostly a boring tree. We just want a live tree. Certain diseases are welcome, since they add character. We don't care about structural integrity, since the tree poses no hazard due to its small size. We don't care about the dignity of the tree either. There is no such thing anyway, it exists only in the human mind. Once the tree is bound to be a bonsai, we have no need to respect it. Respecting a tree would mean that we leave it to become what Nature intended it to be, but as a bonsai, it is nothing but a live medium that we try to manipulate.

Would that be a reasonable response?
 

Attila Soos

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I'll stick to gnarly ancient looking trees that are treated well after major work and that only appear to be eeking out an existance.

just personal preference as I don't see the trees suffering from anything in bonsai culture.
I am with you as far as liking those gnarly trees. I am just trying to reconcile my feelings as a bonsaist with the views of other nature-loving people. I don't see trees suffering in bonsai culture.

But this depends on the definition of suffering: if you define suffering with having a conscious mind, then you are right. But if suffering means that one gets into a state of imbalance between one's own system, and the surrounding environment, and is struggling to restore the balance in order to stay alive, then are trees suffering or not?
 

Ang3lfir3

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So, our response to Dr. Shigo would be:

We, bonsaists, do not want a healty tree. A healthy tree is mostly a boring tree. We just want a live tree. Certain diseases are welcome, since they add character. We don't care about structural integrity, since the tree poses no hazard due to its small size. We don't care about the dignity of the tree either. There is no such thing anyway, it exists only in the human mind. Once the tree is bound to be a bonsai, we have no need to respect it. Respecting a tree would mean that we leave it to become what Nature intended it to be, but as a bonsai, it is nothing but a live medium that we try to manipulate.

Would that be a reasonable response?
well that is surely a slighted and tainted response. What about trees in bonsai even those that have large wounds and hollows do you believe makes them "not healthy"? Structural integrity has nothing to do with bonsai... or nature for that matter as we have all seen many ancient trees that are completely hollow... its part of the natural order. Isn't tree dignity some concept that was dreamed up by Shigo and to which he then focused his methodologies on preserving this "dignity" that he invented or at least has his own definition of? What makes you think that trees in bonsai culture are not respected and reveared, even more so than many landscape trees? Interesting I wasn't aware that leaving a tree to be what Nature intedended it to be was respect? Do natural acts of damage count as nature respecting the tree? I wonder can nature disrespect the tree when it kills all but one branch from a lightning strike? Yes as bonsai artists trees are a medium... one we work very hard to take care of... keep in excellent health and often provide a better life then the tree had in nature... is that so bad?
 

Ang3lfir3

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I am just trying to reconcile my feelings as a bonsaist with the views of other nature-loving people.
worry about you... and not some other person's idea which i don't believe ever took into account the concepts and philosophies of bonsai culture in the first place.
 
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