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"Pollarding"; or The Art of Making Trees Ugly


You Bet Your Garden
Question of the Week © 2018 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.

"Pollarding"; or The Art of Making Trees Ugly

Q. Tom in Rio Grande, New Jersey (just outside of Cape May) writes: "We live in a 55-Plus development, have a landscape service that "takes care" of the grounds, and I am so upset with them that I am spitting nails.

"We have three trees at the edge of our back yard. We have asked the landscape service not to touch these trees every year for the past four years. They had grown to the point of just about being able to provide much-wanted shade on our back patio from the afternoon sun. Then I came home one day to find that the trees had been severely pruned. Here's a picture of how they look now; and this is a photo of what these trees looked like before we unfortunately went away for a week. (And no, I didn't collect evidence in advance, expecting a crime to be committed while we were gone. The second picture is actually a photo of the trees I luckily took back when they were two years younger.)

"Have you ever heard of trimming back deciduous trees as if they were a bush or a hedge? I was always taught was that 'pruning' meant selectively removing branches to help the trees grow stronger and in balance. Am I missing something?"

A. Yeah Tom; you're missing half of your trees! Yuck; yuck!

(Sorry; I am weak-willed and could not resist.)

Pruning of trees is exactly as you describe, Tom—selectively removing entire branches to eliminate dead and diseased sections, improve airflow and—in some species—control the height of the tree without killing it. But your trees were not 'pruned'—they were 'pollarded', a 'technique' {I'm choking on calling this a 'technique'; it's more like a felony} that dates back millennia and actually made great sense for people living in the early centuries; in fact, its probably one of the earliest forms of permaculture!

Pollarding doesn't remove entire branches selectively. Instead, it turns every single branch into a stump, making for a kind of "Nightmare before Christmas" look. (As if a leafless tree in the grey of winter wasn't sad enough!) So—how could this be a good idea back when BC changed to AD? Animal feed and firewood.

At some point in the summer, farmers would prune off all of the leafy matter at the top of their trees. They had to make sure that the trees had been processing solar energy long enough to sustain the tree for the season, but not wait so long that the leaves would become tough and less nutritious. This harvest made excellent sense: the leafy bits would become fodder for animals like horses and cows; the smaller branches would be dried for kindling and craft-making; and larger sections would become firewood. Do it right, and the tree would provide an annual harvest as good or better than any fruit tree.

No, the trees did not look nice; they looked as ugly as the ones in the pictures—but this was about survival and sustainability. Early cultures required wood for an endless number of uses, and it takes a long time for a newly-planted tree to grow to a useful size. Much smarter to get what you—and your animals—need without killing the tree.

(This is a tactic currently being used with fast-regrowing trees to fight famine and drought in Africa, where it's called 'alley cropping'. It would also be used for historical accuracy in 'living farms', like the one at St. Fagan's Museum of Natural History in Wales {where I once spent several days and recommend highly}.

But in a home landscape, it is just uglier than The Dog's Breakfast.

I don't have a lot of good news for the future of these trees. The new branches that emerge will be thin, spindly and totally out of proportion with the rest of the tree. Research also indicates that the trees will grow much more slowly now. And that's if they survive; I see a lot of trees that were pollarded years ago that never saw new growth—they exist only as ugly sculptural reminders of lessons never learned.

Tom: Doubtless you will be told that your trees were "thinned out" to prevent winter snow and ice from damaging the trees. Instead they were pre-damaged by a landscaping crew that may even bill the community for this "service". In the long run, only politics can prevent this nonsense; you have to go to the community meetings, get a position on the landscaping committee and enlist the support of your friends and neighbors to prevent this ugliness. Your 'before and after' pictures tell a powerful tale—play those cards!

A nugget of potential good news? If this is the only time your trees get whacked, they may eventually be able to grow back branches of a size that look like they belong on the tree. And after a couple of unmolested seasons they should even begin growing at a normal rate again. Just be sure they don't get whacked again or your hope for future shade will forever be whacked with them—although you would be able to keep a pony if the landscaping crew leaves the branches behind!

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