The old man and the tree – an epic battle

Regular readers of this blog will know that the last activity in my winter cut back is the reshaping of my big Bay tree. I reshaped the tree in question about 9 years ago by cutting out the main trunk and then trimming the top, bottom and sides to create an open donut effect.

This is a style that can be seen in various town squares in my part of Spain and one that I would recommend to anyone with a big shapeless tree. However, there is one drawback; the tree resents this and will harbour feelings of hatred and revenge for the rest of its growing life. Bay trees are the elephants of the gardening world – they never forget!

Contemplation and preparation. The task of reshaping the big bay is not only physically draining, but it also requires mental stamina and inner fortitude. For weeks both the tree and I know what is coming. I up my daily exercise regime and even employ methods of meditation and prayer. The tree for its part prepares by oozing sap from its leaves and encouraging huge infestations of Wooly Aphids.

The first two photos below show the big bay ready for the coming battle. Click on each photo for an enlarged view.

The photos below show me contemplating the coming battle and with the various equipment needed. The tree hates these photos and has complained in previous years that I look like a big game Hunter being photographed with his prey. Click on each photo for an enlarged view.

Day 1, let battle commence. There was a time when this battle would only take one day. But since I am almost 72 I have recognised the toll on my body so it now takes two days and enough pots of tea to sink a battleship. The main effort in day 1 is to trim underneath the tree to create a nice flat and level base. This is followed by trimming the bottom half of the sides. To achieve theses tasks I work from ladders and also a scaffolding platform using electric hedge trimmers and electric telescopic trimmers. As the tree has grown in height this is becoming progressively more difficult (or maybe I’m shrinking).

For its part the tree does not hesitate to fight back. I am regularly thrown off my ladders and scaffolding by whipping branches. My hands and face are lacerated by twigs, leaves and branches. But it’s worst trick is to drop hundreds of Wooly Aphids directly into my mouth as I look up to trim. In addition Aphids and leaves are dropped down the back of my tee shirt and into my shorts. All of this has the effect that I end day 1 looking like a medieval leper in need of curing.

The first photo below shows me beginning the process of shaping the sides, whilst the second shows the tree at the end of the first day. Click on each photo for an enlarged view.

Day 2 pushing through to victory. The continuing effort in day 2 is to trim the top half of the sides flat, then to angle the telescopic trimmer to get at the top and cut it flat. After the sides and top are complete then it is time to do the really dangerous stuff. This involves going up a ladder and climbing into the middle of the tree and sitting on the stump where the main trunk used to be., whilst at the same time wielding an electric hedge trimmer. The purpose of this exercise is to cut away the inner branches and leaves to redefine the hole that forms the central part of the donut. On numerous occasions I have had to fling the hedge trimmer away from me as I fall ignominiously down the tree and onto the stones below.

The final stages before the big clean up is to use long reach telescopic lopers to trim off those pesky bits of branches that are still sticking up at the top. When you have finished primping the tree, clean up the bulk of the leaves and then leave the residue for about three days. After three days the rest of the fallen leaves will have shrivelled and dried and can easily be cleaned up with a blower or leaf rake. The importance of clearing away all leaves cannot be over stressed as, if left they will break down and form an excellent mulch for weeds in your gravel. Cruella has just looked over my shoulder at the last sentence and said I was pathetic and needed to get a life; I think she meant it kindly!

The first photo below shows me battling with the long lopers as I look for the perfect cut, whilst the second photo shows the tree at the end of day 2. Click on each photo for an enlarged view.

The photos below show the newly redefined hole at the centre of my topiary donut and the tree a few days later after the big clean up. The final photo shows my statue of the Cheshire Cat returned to its pride of place at the centre of the tree. Click on each photo for an enlarged view.

As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice “…we’re all mad here, I’m mad” I have taken this as my gardening motto.

Author: spanishgarden

I live in both Spain and the UK and am a very keen gardener. I garden every day and enjoy sharing all the secrets that God allows us to discover in our gardens.

4 thoughts on “The old man and the tree – an epic battle”

  1. Set up an academy Tony. Train the arborists of the future. Make it prestigious give them a high quality diploma that is exclusive and will offer graduates potential high earnings as they will be sought after by clients. Check out the concept of Norland Nannies in the UK and worldwide. They are the creme de la creme of Nannies, and you could do the same for arborists.


  2. That is such a weird technique. No one here takes horticulture that seriously anymore, which is why coppicing and pollarding are not practical. We just can not find arborists who know how to do it properly. When I get around to growing a bay tree again (not the native sort), I will likely coppice it, or alternate canes. I would not want it to grow into a full sized tree.


      1. Part of the problem is that it is SO stupidly expensive to live here, and the horticultural industries are not proportionately lucrative. People pay millions of dollars for a home, but can find no one to maintain it for them.


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