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Brown means you’ve gone too far: a homeowner’s guide to conifer maintenance

8th November 2019

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What colour should the leaves on a healthy tree be? Easy question, right? Green of course (aside from the glorious reds, golds and browns of autumn for deciduous trees, but that goes without saying). Healthy trees in spring and summer are green, so why do we see so many coniferous trees looking scraggy and brown? The answer is because someone who didn’t know the damage they could do were left in charge of pruning and tree maintenance.If you leave someone in charge of looking after your conifers who does not understand their biology, the best you can hope for is that you’ll be left with a permanent unsightly mess. Because, unlike other trees, conifers do not recover from over-pruning. Do I have conifers?A conifer is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as ‘…mostly evergreen trees and shrubs having usually needle-shaped or scale-like leaves and including forms with true cones and others with an arillate fruit’. There are over 800 species of conifers in the world and they make up around 40% of the planet’s forests. Over 50 species grow in Britain today, but only 3 are recognised as native to the UK – the Scots Pine, Juniper and Yew. Other well-known species introduced to the UK are firs, cedars, spruces and redwoods. Conifers have been around for a very long time, over 300 million years, but their future is under threat as their wood is so highly prized for timber and construction materials such as chipboard and MDF, as well as fuel and medicine, and some foods and drinks from their fruit. Conifers are popular garden trees as their majestic frame can add cachet to a property and their thick foliage can make them perfect choices for those looking for a little more privacy. So, do you have conifers in your garden? Why you’ll regret over-pruningConifers only grow green on the outside as these are the youngest needles. If you rummage around in the inner foliage of a conifer you’ll find that those needles which don’t get to see the light – older needles – quickly lose their colour and turn brown, many of which then fall from the tree. A conifer should only ever be trimmed within the boundaries of its green needles, cut too far and you hit brown and there’s no going back. For most trees this wouldn’t be too much of a disaster as the leaves would simply grow back, but for a conifer this is a major problem because the brown needles you’ve just exposed will never turn green, never regrow. This will leave you with an exposed brown patch that will never go away. To make matters worse, there are plenty of ‘have-a-go’ tree surgeons out there and if you allowed them near your conifers, they could trim the whole tree back to brown needles, believing that it’ll just regrow its green ones in the spring. Ideally, conifer trees should be properly and regularly maintained from a young age. As the outer expanse of the tree grows, the inner brown area also grows outwards so if you wish to keep your conifers to a certain width – to prevent them from blocking too much light or encroaching on walkways, then it’s far better to maintain them more often rather than to simply prune them further back once in a while, as the less you need to remove, the less likely you are to expose the dreaded brown needles. Speak to your trusted local ARB Approved tree surgeon and agree an annual maintenance schedule to achieve this. When to prune/trim a conifer?For most trees, autumn and winter are the prime times to prune. This is when insects, fungi and bacteria are at their lowest numbers so there is less chance of infection or infestation. And it’s when the leaves have already fallen to expose the branches and limbs of the tree, which makes it far easier to see what you’re doing. However, conifers are different – they need to be trimmed back throughout the spring and summer months, because to cut through them in autumn could cause permanent damage. So if you have a coniferous tree in your garden, call in your local trusted tree surgeon to take a look and give you a recommended maintenance programme. And if they happen to be an ARB Approved Contractor, then all the better because this means they are in the top 2% of their profession.

And so, to summarise:

Conifers should not be pruned in autumn   Coniferous trees should be trimmed in spring or summer. To trim them in autumn encourages dieback.
Never trim your conifer down to brown needles   Always trim within the green needle boundary because the brown needles never grow back green.
Always choose an ARB Approved Contractor   Only 300 in the country, approved by the Arboricultural Association.

To book a free survey consultation with one of our ARB Approved arborists for advice on your trees or to book in our tree surgeons to prune/maintain or fell your tree(s), call us on 0208 292 8992.

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