For as much as I’ve written about pine care, I haven’t said much about cutback. Cutback can be tricky as there are many reasons to remove or not remove branches in given situations. Different teachers approach the topic differently, and often multiple approaches can yield good results.
Ignoring any complexity for the time being, I’ll start with the most basic of principles – cut back to two buds. After decandling, pines can produce any number of summer shoots. Left unchecked, these clusters of branches can cause swelling and make basic pad development challenging. The most simple approach to pad development is to leave no more than two shoots at the end of every branch. Although the photos below show red pine shoots, the technique applies equally to black pines.
When we find more than two shoots at the end of a branch, something has to go. Which shoot to cut? It depends. Shoot position and vigor are the most common criteria used to make a selection. When all shoots on a given branch have similar vigor, I tend to make my selection based on shoot direction. In the photo below, one shoot grows up, the other two shoots grow to the sides. In this case, I’ll remove the center shoot.
Three shoots of equal vigor
After removing the center shoot
Upward growing shoots often have much more vigor than lateral or downward-facing shoots. For this reason, I’ll often remove the upward facing shoot.
The converse is also true – downward facing shoots tend to have less vigor. As the two lateral shoots in the photo below have equal vigor, the selection is simple – remove the downward facing shoot.
The downward facing shoot will continue to get weaker as the shoots above will shade it out
After removing the downward facing shoot
Sometimes the shoots don’t line up the way I’d like. In the photo below, the upward and downward facing shoots are relatively strong, but the lateral shoot is weak. In this case, I’ll remove the weak lateral shoot to maintain equal vigor among the remaining shoots.
The lateral shoot is weak
After removing the lateral shoot
In time, the upward growing shoot will tend to grow stronger than the downward facing shoot. I can prevent this by wiring the branch and twisting it until the shoots are side by side.
Occasionally I’ve seen strong strong shoots growing downward. As the two lateral shoots are of equal vigor, I removed the odd man out.
Strong downward facing shoot
Lateral shoots have equal vigor
In small clusters of equal vigor shoots, I’ll often remove the shoot that leaves the most space between the remaining shoots, though I don’t know that any one selection in these cases is preferable to any other.
Three small shoots
After cutting to two
Here’s a fun case – very strong vertical shoots and relatively weak lateral shoots. Which to keep?
Vertical shoots are strong, lateral shoots are weak
If this branch was near the apex or an equally vigorous zone, I’d want to decrease the vigor of the branch and leave the smaller shoots. If the branch was in a weak zone, I’d keep the stronger shoots. As this branch was at the very top of the tree, I removed the stronger shoots.
The top shoots go
Nicely balanced lateral shoots remain
And what about whorls of many shoots? Easy, cut to your favorite two.
After cutting back to two
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