Shearing Pine Christmas Trees

Last August (2012) I wrote about the first steps in shearing Balsam fir Christmas trees. In this blog I will talk about shearing pine trees for Christmas trees. Shearing pine trees is very different from shearing fir trees. Shearing Christmas trees is part science (biology) and part art. Understanding how a tree grows, is the science and shaping a tree to end up with the most beautiful tree a customer could ever find, is the art. Of course Mother Nature is going to play a role and sometimes can upset the best intentions of the science and the art.  Insects, disease or weather can damage a tree at any time in its cycle of becoming a full grown Christmas tree.  Fixing small problems that often occur in trees is best achieved through a knowledgeable mixing of the art and the science.

The two most common tools for working on pine Christmas trees.  A shearing knife and hand pruners.

The two most common tools for working on pine Christmas trees. A shearing knife and hand pruners.

There are a couple of basic words I should explain before we go any further. As Christmas tree growers, we tend to throw words around that relate to Christmas tree growing and expect every one to understand what we are talking about. Shearing and pruning are two often used words that mean two very different things. Shearing refers to the shaping of the foliage of the tree to create a pleasing shape and greater density.  Shearing pine trees is usually done with a long shearing knife, made specifically for this purpose.  Pruning refers to the removal of the lowest branches on the tree to create a branch free “handle”.  The handle is the base of the tree that a happy customer will use to put their tree into a stand.  Pruning is typically done using a pair of hand pruners.

Tip of a branch showing the developing new buds for next year's growth.  Most pine only have buds at the tip of the branch.

Tip of a branch showing the developing new buds for next year’s growth. Most pine only have buds at the tip of the branch.

Shearing of pine trees usually begins when the trees are quite small.  Pine trees, especially the white pine trees we grow, tend to have vigorous growth and put out a long main leader.  If left un-sheared the tree will produce open gaps that are almost impossible to fill in later.  Most species of pine only produce buds at the tips of the branches.  There are no side buds as there are in fir trees.  This is one of the main reasons why pine and fir are so different in their shearing.   Pine trees MUST be sheared during their active growing season.  This means that there is a very short time each year for the most effective shearing.  In Prince Edward Island, Canada this time will range from about late June to mid July.  If the shearing is not done during this time the results will be disappointing.   Because shearing removes almost all of the tips of the new shoots the tree needs time to set new buds at the point where the tips were cut.  If it is done too late in the season the tree will not have time to set new buds for next years growth.

Small White Pine Christmas tree with excessively long leader.   The leader should never be allowed to more than 30 cm (12 in.).

Small White Pine Christmas tree with excessively long leader. The leader should never be allowed to grow more than 30 cm (12 in.).

This is the same small tree after shearing.  Note the leader is 30 cm (12 in.) or shorter.

This is the same small tree after shearing. Note the leader is 30 cm (12 in.) or shorter. New buds will develop at the cut tips.

Different species of pine were tried at Watts Tree Farm. We tried Scots pine and Red pine but with little success. There are many varieties of Scots pine. We had some strains that we liked but the local nurseries could not supply the same strains consistently, so we gave up. Some strains are extremely “prickly” and not user friendly while others have softer needles. Some regions of Canada have large portion of their crop in pine. However, in Prince Edward Island there is only a small percentage of pine Christmas trees as Balsam fir is the dominant species. Most Christmas tree growers do not grow pine as it is such a small portion of their sales.  Years ago I recognized this as a niche in the market that I could use to get more buyers to my lot.  It seems to have worked.  I will get some customers who will travel further to come to our “Choose and Cut”  because they know we have pine trees.

White Pine Christmas trees before this season's shearing.   All of these have been sheared for several years.

White Pine Christmas trees before this season’s shearing. All of these have been sheared for several years.

After this season's shearing.  The taller trees will be ready for market this year.   They will grow out a bit more and lose that "just sheared" look.

After this season’s shearing. The taller trees will be ready for market this year. They will grow out a bit more and lose that “just sheared” look.

White pine can be sheared into very beautiful Christmas trees.  However, the one draw back to them is the fact that they are not only soft in appearance and touch but their branches are too soft and flexible.  I have to warn new buyers that they can be “tricky” to decorate.  They will not handle heavy ornaments the same way a fir tree will.   I have customers who come back the next year and say “Never again.” and others who come specifically for these white pine and have for many years.  I have seen some of the trees decorated by customers and they can be made to look absolutely beautiful.

As always, it is difficult to explain things in great detail I my blog.  However, I hope the photographs help to give a good visual reference to the explain better the work that goes into shearing pine trees.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photo to get a larger image***

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Pruning White Pine for Higher Quality Wood

First of all I want to apologize to my blog followers for not getting a blog written in April.  Life became a little too busy and there was no time to sit down and write a blog.  This could happen again as there are some things happening that will keep me away from finding much time for some of the things I enjoy.  Enough of this, lets move on to the topic of this blog.  Back in January I wrote about thinning a softwood plantation.  This time I would like to write about pruning white pine, which could easily be substituted for many other softwood or hard wood trees.

This young whie pine is receiving its first pruning.  Only two or three whorls of branches will be removed at this age.

This young whie pine is receiving its first pruning. Only two or three whorls of branches will be removed at this age.

The first question you are probably asking yourself is, “Why bother to prune trees at all?”  It is very time-consuming and a fair bit of hard work if you have a larger acreage of trees.  I hope I can clearly answer the question of why pruning is a worthwhile thing to do.  I will focus strictly on white pine for this blog.  The main reason we prune pine is to create clear wood in the trunk or bole of the tree.  When you go to a lumber store to buy pine lumber or pine wood products, you can usually buy it by grade.  In the case of white pine, clear lumber with no knots is the most expensive grade to buy.  In manufactuing clear pine has more value for making things like moulding for your house.  These clear pieces are more stable and less likely to have any breakage.  So if the clear lumber is more valuable then trees that have a higher precetage of knot free wood should also be more valuable.

Knots in lumber are formed from the branches of the tree as it is growing.  The tree simply grows new wood each year and if there are branches the tree will grow around the branch and keep doing this as long as the branch is there.  When the tree is sawn into lumber we see the encased branches as knots.  Some species of trees “self prune” reasonably well but a little intervention can speed up the process.  Quite simply we are trying to remove the lower branches as early as possible in the age of the tree.  Once the lower branches are removed the tree will grow clear “white wood” with no knots in that part of the tree.

Two examples of white pine lumber (paneling).  The one on the left is clear with no knots.   The one on the right is an example of knotty lumber.
Two examples of white pine lumber (paneling). The one on the left is clear with no knots. The one on the right is an example of knotty lumber.

To get the best advantage of pruning it is best to start when the trees are still quite small.  But only a few rows of branches can be removed at one time.  The trees can be revisited every few years and a few more rows of lower branches can be removed.  When the trees are small I like to keep at last 50% of the tree in “live crown”.  In other words, do not remove branches more than halfway up the tree.  As the trees get older this ratio can be reduced to 30% live crown.

Pruning is best done during the “dormant season”.  For white pine in my area this would usually be from October until April Although I have done some smaller trees in May and perhaps even June.  It is best if the pruning is done in the colder months as it is less likely to cause a disease entry point where the branch is removed.  You should try not to cut too close to the trunk of the tree and be careful not to tear any of the bark.  This could cause a decay problem at that point and degrade the lumber from the tree.  As the branches get larger it is desirable to make a cut in the underside of the branch first.  This will help prevent the bark on the trunk of the tree from tearing when the heavy limb falls.

This white pine is receiving its second pruning.  A good pair of hand pruners will still handle this job.

This white pine is receiving its second pruning. A good pair of hand pruners will still handle this job.

When I begin pruning small trees I use hand pruners. It is worth buying a high quality pair which should last years and work much better than inexpensive ones.  As the trees get taller and the branches larger I move to a pruning saw.  You can purchase a small hand pruning saw, a saw with a medium length handle or for really tall trees, a telescoping handle pruning saw works well.

As the trees get taller it is necessary to move to a telescoping pruning saw.  These saws work amazingly well.

As the trees get taller it is necessary to move to a telescoping pruning saw. These saws work amazingly well.

Previously, I had mentioned that the main reason for pruning lower branches is to create higher value wood.  There are a couple of other possible reasons to prune white pine.   White pine are susceptible to a fungal disease called White Pine Blister Rust.  This disease is usually fatal to white pine if they get infected.  One way to reduce the incidence of White pine blister rust is to prune the lower branches of the tree.  In theory this creates better air flow and drier air around the trunk of the tree and seems to help reduce the incidence of this disease.   A third reason to prune trees is purely aesthetics.  There is something very appealing about looking up a tall straight tree with no branch for a long way up the tree.  They seem to be just a little more majestic when they have a clean trunk with no branches.

There are many things to do in a woodlot to make improvements.  Some can be to someday make more money from the sale of our timber or other products.  Some small improvements are for aesthetics, which can be every bit as important as making more income for our woodlots.  Pruning is just one of those little things that can be done, one tree at a time, to make a small improvement.   There are lots of things I would like to write about in future blogs and I hope that many people find this site and find some value in it.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photo to get a larger image.***