Tree Tube FAQ: To prune or not to prune?

So you have your new treeshelter tubes from Tree Protection Supply, and you’re about to pop them over your sawtooth oak, persimmon or crabapple seedlings.  The seedlings have a few good-sized lateral branches on them, and you realize you have a choice:  You can gather those lateral branches together to place the tree tube over them, or you can prune the tree to a single stem before protecting it with the tree tube.  What to do?

Logic tells you to gather the branches together and fit the tree tube over the whole tree, for two reasons.  The first is based on practicality:  You paid for good, strong planting stock so the last thing you want to do is prune a good portion of the tree off right after planting it.  The second reason is based on sound plant physiology:  You know that under normal circumstances those branches and leaves would fuel more root growth, which in turn would fuel more top growth.  If you prune those lateral branches it seems like you are robbing the tree of a good portion of its growth engine. 

However, we strongly recommend pruning the seedling a single stem before tubing it, for two reasons:

 1. BETTER TREE FORM AND LONG TERM HEALTH – When you gather lateral branches together to fit them into the 4” diameter confines of a tree tube, those branches will develop with very narrow branch crotch angles.  The narrow joints between branch and trunk are very weak connections that are prone to breaking as the tree grows and the branches get heavier.  The need for good tree form is especially true with trees planted for high value timber, but it also holds true for trees planted primarily for wildlife habitat.  Broken branches become entry points for disease and decay pathogens that can shorten the productive life of your trees.

 2. BETTER GROWTH – Remember I said that “under normal circumstances” you would want those branches and leaves fueling more growth?  Well tree tubes are not “normal circumstances” for trees, and inside a tree tube the rules are different.  Almost everything about growing trees in tubes is counterintuitive.  We have tried it both ways, and we have found that trees in tree tubes actually grow faster when first pruned to a single stem.  There are two reasons for this:  Better air movement in the tube, to replenish the CO2 the tree needs for peak photosynthesis (those additional branches and leaves can actually “plug” the tube and reduce air flow), and better sun exposure for the leaves in the tube.

 Think of it like this:  The job of a treeshelter tube is to convert a good, strong root system into a healthy, long-lived tree… safely and quickly.  The best way to do that is to prune the lateral branches before tubing.  As much as it will pain you to prune that seedling to a single stem, just remember that pruning is not only best for the long-term health of the tree, it will actually accelerate growth in the short term as well.

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