Dominance Games

by Terry Davis

I am hearing from Ryan Neil that you need to balance the energy of a pine by having the same number of needles on the top branches as on the bottom branches. Not sure just how to go about this. I thought maybe by plucking needles on my Ponderosas, but Ryan made us swear a blood oath that we wouldn’t do that (at all, ever) (editor’s note: shoot/candle selection perhaps?). The pyramidal shape of a conifer naturally accomplishes this, but ponderosas don’t always (Always? Never!) lend themselves to conical pyramidal shapes. Their styling… let’s admit it: it’s pretty much catch as catch can. Perfect example of working with the tree to establish a style (which likely isn’t gonna fit in any textbook). This is not a bad thing. There seems to be a special school of Ponderosa technique emerging from those with experience and the ability to pay attention to what is working (and enough trees to experiment with). Anyway, applying this idea to forcing energy into the lower branches of my crepe myrtle was a no-brainer: just cut the top back harder.

I keep hearing that azaleas lack apical dominance (the tendency for the the apex to grow more strongly). How anyone can say that when looking at a bunch of big azaleas where the tops are too dense to see through and the bottom branches are weak, I don’t know. A lot of things get to be urban legends because people keep repeating them without paying attention. Yes, there are azaleas that are weak in the head… these tend to be the ones that are low-growing, semi-prostrate shwubbewies. But the ones that want to get 8 feet tall? Don’t believe it for a moment! A leggy plant is in no way apically weak! First off, keeping the tree in a good nutritional state and keeping the foliage balanced will get you around weak tops a lot of the time.

I think I am going to have to incorporate this into my azalea class: how to recognize what the azalea is made of and how it wants to grow. Sun tolerance, flower and leaf size, and dominance pattern. If you want to see trees that are really basally dominant, tackle a Kiyohime maple or one of the weeping Japanese maples like Crimson Queen. Rassling match.