Pruning weeping Alaskan cedar

(Question)

I have a Weeping Alaskan Cedar that may need pruning.
(I attached a photo, hopefully you can see it.)
It seems to have 2 leaders (each about 3′ tall) in addition to the main tree (4′ tall). One coming from out of the dirt and one coming from the trunk of the main tree.
When I plant this in the ground (hopefully this weekend 4/27) should I prune these off or will they eventually spread out and become horizontal branches?

Thank you for your advise.

(Answer)

Yes, you are right, your beautiful Alaskan Cedar (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis) has competing leaders. These need to be removed for both the health and symmetry of the tree. Lee Reich in The Pruning book explains why:

“Most coniferous trees …need little pruning beyond that necessary to maintain a single central leader. Rarely do any shoots compete with the developing leader, but if they do cut them off completely as soon as you notice them. Otherwise you will have two (or more) shoots developing into leaders, with a narrow angle between them. Not only will this upset the symmetry of the tree, but old dead bark will build up in that narrow-angled crotch, and, with no living tissue to join them, the two leaders may split apart with age.”

“You need to aim for all branches being subordinate to the central leader in both position and growth rate.

In the rare instances where a branch is growing too fast in comparison with the leader, slow its growth by shortening it. Do this by cutting one off more laterals on this side branch back to other lateral, thereby preserving the natural beauty of the plant and avoiding dead stubs.”

So we have established that you need to prune. The first step is to make sure your pruning tool is sharp and clean and oiled. It is difficult to see from the photos just how thick the competing branches are so you may be able to use a hand pruner (secateurs). If you have long handled pruner (lopper) or a pruning knife (has a curved blade) this would be ideal.

Where to cut? Lee Reich advises to cut “just beyond the ridge and collar.” “Begin your cut just above the ridge of bark between the limb to be removed and that branch. Make the angle of your cut midway between a line perpendicular to the limb to be removed and a line that follows that ridge of bark back from the crotch. The resulting cut will angle down slightly, but leave enough wood for continued strong attachment of the branch. Look again near the origin of a branch for that ridge of bark above the point of attachment, and for a raised collar beneath the point of attachment. Cut the branch just beyond a line from that ridge to that collar. That ridge and that collar will form a natural protection zone, preventing the spread of infection into the trunk when the branch is removed.” Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words so consult a book on pruning to see this cutting approach represented in a diagram.

What not to do: “Do not cut the branch back flush with the trunk or limb to which it is attached” and “avoid erring in the opposite direction and leaving a stub when you remove a branch. The stub will die and decay. Even if decay does not spread into the tree the dead stub will delay the healing over of the wound and be incorporated within the new growth.”

“If no branch collar is obvious, you can make an intelligent guess as to its location and with the help of the ridge of bark between a branch and the limb to which it is attached. The angle that the bark ridge makes with the axis of the branch is about equal to the angle that the bark ridge makes with the branch collar.”

When to prune? Most conifers go through two surges of growth each year: one in spring (the main growth period) and a second (lesser) one in late summer. Pruning just before these growth periods allows the plant to respond quickly to any training and shaping. So your plan to prune now in early spring is ideal.

The good news is that after this formative pruning is undertaken your plant will require very little routine pruning.