This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
One of the false impressions that have long-prevailed with much force and endurance, is the alleged necessity of preserving the top shoots of evergreens. Birds are looked upon with apprehension and disgust as they press destructive feet on this valuable growth. Stakes are even used to support such important elements of health and symmetry; and the purchaser who seeks choice specimens, carefully avoids all evergreens that have lost their leaders, almost superstitiously regarding it as impossible that the lost, in this case, can ever return.
What are the real facts of the case as indicated by intelligent experience? Simply that the destruction of the leading shoot is often an actual benefit to the tree when its aspiring habits become too strong, and that, so far from birds fatally injuring the symmetry of trees by breaking the topmost shoots, cases happen, frequently, where the preservation of symmetry has been largely due to the action of their little feet.
As long as the leader grows in due proportion to the rest of the tree, its presence is most necessary; but, unfortunately, this upward tendency, when excessive, seems to draw away the sap from properly doing its work in the tree's lower portions, or, in other words, destroys the equilib-rium. Diminished growths then appear at the base, exhibiting irregular, open spaces in the foliage which in that part should be most dense. The growth, forced aloft, becomes concentrated farther and farther up the tree, until all symmetry is destroyed, and we behold a monstrosity, where we had gloried only a few years before in perfect proportion and grace. Silver Firs are especially liable to this tendency, and consequently are apt to possess their highest beauty at a comparatively early age.
An efficient remedy may be applied to all evergreens by pruning such shoots during youth, until a satisfactory base is acquired, when a very occasional removal of the offending member, will readily prevent deformity. The fear which sometimes exists that the amputated leader will never return, is perfectly groundless; although, when the operation is performed on a plant of considerable age, reappearance may be delayed for several years. This delay will however, be found rather a benefit than otherwise, as in the meantime, the proper furnishing of the tree will be established before any strength of the sap is drawn off to assist the upward growth of the leader.
The lesson taught, of course, is that the equilibrium of the various parts of the tree should be always maintained by pruning any shoots that evince rampant tendencies. Systematic management will thus preclude the necessity of all severe pruning in the sense of amputation.
The simple processes hereby pointed out are doubtless familiar to most experts; but it has been our wish to secure from all who possess evergreens, a greater attention to such operations. It is simple pruning with thumb and finger, or knife, and not shearing into formal shapes. Only experience can afford an adequate conception of the quality of growth thus retained.