Tree Girdling Technique: Learn About Girdling For Fruit Production
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By: Teo Spengler
Girdling a tree is often on the list of actions to avoid in your garden. While stripping bark off a tree trunk all the way around is likely to kill the tree, you can use a specific tree girdling technique to increase fruit yield in a few species. Girdling for fruit production is a frequently used technique on peach and nectarine trees. Should you girdle fruit trees? Read on for more information about tree girdling techniques.
What is Tree Girdling?
Tree girdling for fruit production is an accepted practice in commercial peach and nectarine production. Girdling involves cutting out a thin strip of bark from around the trunk or branches. You have to use a special girdling knife and make sure you don’t cut deeper than the cambium layer, the layer of wood just under the bark.
This type of girdling interrupts the flow of carbohydrates down the tree, making more food available for fruit growth. The technique should only be used for certain fruit trees.
Why Should You Girdle Fruit Trees?
Don’t start girdling fruit trees randomly or without learning the proper tree girdling technique. Girdling the wrong trees or the wrong way can kill a tree quickly. Experts recommend girdling a tree to enhance fruit production only for two types of fruit trees. These are peach and nectarine trees.
Girdling for fruit production can result in bigger peaches and nectarines, more fruit per tree, and an earlier harvest. In fact, you may be able to start harvesting fruit 10 days earlier than if you don’t use this tree girdling technique.
Although many home gardeners do not perform girdling for fruit production, it is a standard practice for commercial producers. You can try these tree girdling techniques without damaging your trees if you proceed with caution.
Tree Girdling Techniques
In general, this form of girdling is done about 4 to 8 weeks prior to harvest. Earlier varieties may need to be done 4 weeks after blooming, which is about 4 weeks before their normal harvest. Also, it is advised that you not thin peach or nectarine fruit and girdle the trees simultaneously. Instead, allow at least 4-5 days between the two.
You’ll need to use special tree girdling knives if you are girdling for fruit production. The knives remove a very thin strip of bark.
You only want to girdle tree branches that are at least 2 inches (5 cm.) in diameter where they attach to the tree trunk. Cut the girdle in an “S” shape. The beginning and ending cuts should never be connected, but finish about an inch (2.5 cm.) apart.
Do not girdle trees until they are four years old or older. Pick your timing carefully. You should perform the tree girdling technique before pit-hardening during April and May (in the U.S.).
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Girdled Tree Remedy
Accidents and animals happen, but when they happen to trees, the results are devastating. Whether you accidentally girdled the tree's trunk with a string trimmer or your dog chewed the bark off, once the tree has lost its nutrient path it's likely to die. If the bark is completely removed around the trunk, you have two options to save the tree, depending on the tree's size.
Reasons for Killing a Tree
And yet, while many homeowners welcome the presence of trees on their properties, not all do. Moreover, even homeowners who, generally speaking, find trees beneficial sometimes have a good reason why a particular tree just has to go. These reasons include that a tree can:
- Pose a danger to your house, garage, shed, etc.
- Pose a danger to a vehicle parked in a driveway
- Pose a danger to people, buildings, or vehicles on a neighboring property
- Put out roots that threaten a septic system, etc.
- Be an invasive species
- Cast shade on a portion of your land needed for growing plants that require full sun
- Put out a flower whose pollen gives you an allergic reaction
- Be susceptible to diseases and/or pests that you do not want to deal with
- Make a mess in the yard that lovers of low-maintenance landscaping will despise having to pick up
- Take up an unacceptably large amount of space on a small property
- Begin to crowd another tree that is more highly valued
Girdling can occur naturally, or a tree or branch can be artificially girdled. Foresters often girdle trees as a form of forest management.
In a horticultural setting girdling is known as cincturing. Selective cincturing of branches is performed to increase yields on the remaining branches. Cincturing fruit trees and grape vines forces sugar from the leaves to the fruit, thus increasing their size. This is most often used in vineyards to increase the size of the grapes on the remaining portion of the vine.
Herbaceous animals, birds, and insects can also inadvertently girdle a tree by gnawing or boring holes around the circumference of a tree. In North America voles and beavers are a major source of natural girdling by chewing the roots and lower trunk.
Some invasive vines are also known to girdle trees as they wind themselves tightly around the trunk, damaging the sensitive bark.
Fall Tree Care
For the past several years the retail nursery industry has promoted the idea that "Fall is for Planting." While I agree that in much of our country fall is an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs, in many cases I think the best use of fall time is "unplanting."
Unplanting? OK, I am being a little tongue in cheek. I don't mean to literally dig a plant out of the ground. What I'm talking about is undoing and correcting mistakes that were made at planting time, whether it was earlier in the year or several years ago. We have planting specifications, but I think we're long overdue for "unplanting specs."
There are four areas where more follow-up care is needed: unstaking and untying, unwrapping, unmulching and unbinding.
While you're out "unplanting," don't limit yourself to trees and shrubs in your own yard. Look around -- there are plenty of trees and shrubs at your local schools, shopping malls, public parks and a variety of other locations where even the "professionals" didn't plant correctly or haven't provided adequate "unplanting" maintenance. You may get a few funny looks from people as they pass by, but you can rescue these plants from future problems and perhaps teach a few needed lessons about tree and shrub planting and care at the same time.
A tree needs staking at planting time only if it is unable to stand upright without one, or if it needs protection from wind or people. Assuming the tree needed staking (many don't), a year should be plenty of time. If its roots can't hold it up after that period, there's another problem involved, such as poor roots or soil conditions, that staking won't olve.
Unstaked, trees will develop trunk girth faster, and will also have the strength to keep their posture when hit by wind. Even when staked, trees should never be held rigidly in place.
Untie trees so that the material used to connect the stake to the tree doesn't "girdle" or damage the bark. Girdling restricts water and food movement in a tree and leads to a decline in growth. It might even create a weak spot above the girdle that could break off sometime later.
While you're untying, remove any labels or tags that are still attached. Plants are good at "eating" such items, again causing girdling or weak areas.
Remove any kind of trunk-protecting wrapping that was installed at planting time. Just as with unnecessary staking, there is unnecessary wrapping. In a few specific situations -- trunk protection at digging or shipping time or heat protection if trees are planted into paved areas during the spring or summer -- a wrap for less than a year may help. In most cases, however, wraps don't encourage trees to become established and may actually cause problems.
Bark rotting, enlargement of trunk breathing pores or "lenticels," insect and disease problems and girdling from the wrapping's method of attachment are just a few such problems revealed by my research.
If a tree's trunk has been protected with a metal, plastic or other type of guard to prevent damage caused by machinery, animal feeding or vandalism, be sure it is loose. Otherwise, once again, tree-damaging girdling may occur at the guard site.
My third "unplanting" recommendation is to unmulch. Don't remove all of the mulch, but if you or someone else has gotten overzealous, meaning there is a layer of mulch more than four inches thick against the trunk of any tree or shrub, pull some of it away.
A three- to four-inch mulch layer is usually fine, but mulch against the trunk encourages bark decay or disease or insect problems. Excessive mulch can also create a welcoming habitat for animals such as voles that might feed on the base of your plants.
While you're pulling the mulch at the base of your plants back, check to be sure that your trees and shrubs weren't planted too deeply. The trunk flare or root-stem transition area should be at the soil surface. If the tree is too deeply set and has been in place for just a short time -- three to six months -- dig it up and plant it less deeply. If that's not possible, remove soil from around the trunk base, gradually tapering back to grade.
Be especially sure that any root packaging or balling materials were removed at planting time. These include natural jute or synthetic burlaps, natural hemp or synthetic ropes, the tops of wire baskets, plastic sleeves, even plastic pots. It's amazing how many of these materials are left intact at transplant time, and how quickly they can limit root growth and plant establishment or cause stem girdling. Even the tops of "plantable" peat-paper-fiber pots should be broken away. Their slow rate of biodegradation often limits root development, and the fibers wick moisture away from the roots.
Dr. Bonnie Lee Appleton is a professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association