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Pollarded knuckles look like science fiction.

Most arborists insist that pollarding is horticulturally incorrect. However, most of us who pollard trees in our home gardens are not arborists. Pollarding is technically detrimentally disfiguring to trees. However, some trees that are naturally short lived can live much longer if pollarded properly. That is the trick; doing it properly. Pollarding is certainly a distinctive pruning style that is not for everyone, but can be both practical and sustainable in certain situations.

Pollarding is an extreme pruning technique that involves the removal of all or almost all of the stems that grew since the last time the technique was done. The new growth gets cut back cleanly to distended ‘knuckles’ that develop at the ends of the original stems. Traditionally, one or two strategically aimed stubs from the removed new growth are left on each knuckle to form a new knuckle a bit beyond knuckles of the previous year. Locally though, stubs are typically omitted.

New growth must get cut back cleanly so that the wounds can get compartmentalized (healed over) as efficiently as possibly. Stubs interfere with this process. If one or two stubs are left on knuckles to form new knuckles, they should be long enough to get some distance from the original stubs, but short enough to not be too awkward. Knuckles should not get cut off! Such large wounds do not compartmentalize fast enough to avoid rotting.

Pollarding can only be done in winter, both because plants are dormant, and also because the weather is not so dangerous. New growth starts to shade exposed bark before it gets scalded by intensifying sunlight and heat in summer. Once they come out of dormancy, plants would be seriously distressed by such severe pruning. Because new growth is so vigorous after pollarding, it can become sloppy if pollarded less than annually. Some plants that grow slowly or produce stout stems may get pollarded less frequently.

London plane (sycamore) and fruitless mulberry are the most commonly pollarded trees. Silver maple, silk tree and various elms, willows and poplars adapt well to pollarding as well. Locust and purple leaf plum can be pollarded, but will be deprived of bloom. Bottlebrush can bloom later in the same year after getting pollarded, and probably will not need annual pollarding anyway. Pollarded bay trees can be kept small, and will provide better herbal foliage. Certain eucalyptus can be kept juvenile if their juvenile foliage is more appealing than their adult foliage.

5 thoughts on “Pollarding Is Extreme Tree Pruning

    1. Catalpa is quite conducive to pollarding. I just did not mention it because it is an uncommon tree here. If you know of someone who would like to pollard a tree, please emphasize that the technique must be done properly, with no stubs left on the knuckles (unless pollarding according to English standards, with one or two stubs left to each knuckle, which is actually better.) Most people who observe it think that it is no more than brutal and indiscriminate pruning.

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  1. Here, crape myrtles get pollarded and wowsers, people are passionate about doing it or not doing it. They are lovely naturally with multiple branches pruned out for a magical looking shrub, but the fountain of bloom from the pollarding is beautiful as well. My primary complaint about the argument is that the folks who abhor the pollarding never actually say how a crape myrtle should be pruned, which defeats their purposes if they want to convert folk.

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    1. Crape myrtle is so famously pruned badly that the technique is known to some as ‘crape murder’. The problem is that what is perceived (by some) to be pollarding is not done properly. Although properly executed pollarding is unsightly when it is done, there is a method to it, and trees recovery from it vigorously. If done improperly, it is even more unsightly, and interferes with healthy structural development. Crape myrtles can perform well without pollarding too, but are happier if thinned and groomed of necrotic stems.

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