The Q&A Archives: Chain Tree Maintenance

Question: I purchased a chain tree as a bare root seedling. I originally planted it at ground level with little growth. I then transplanted it to a raised bed of its own. It then grew some, but has a very odd shape to it. The bottom of the actual trunk is approx 5 inches, it then branches off into 5 branches that are only about a foot long and at the ends of each there is a brown spot with no further growth. the odd thing is that these branches are all the same length. The center trunk continues up and approx 2 foot up from the previous mentioned branches the tree branches out again. Should I prune off those five lower branches?? I have been pampering this tree for 5 years and am not having much success. What am I doing wrong. It has full sun, and I fertilize it with miracle grow, and water regularly during dry periods.Could those bottom branches be stunting the growth, or should I prune just above these lower five branches, basically topping the tree?? I have had absolutely no flowering in the five years I have had the tree. Please help. Thank you.

Answer: These trees (Laburnum) are in my experience very finicky to grow. They grow best in cool summer climates with high humidity and mild winters -- they are rated hardy only in zones 5 to 7. They are sensitive to excessive heat, excessive cold, overly dry conditions, overly wet conditions, and overly windy conditions; they would prefer some noontime shade, too. They naturally grow very slowly -- although they should average about a foot a year at the start -- so yours is certainly lagging. It is possible that the transplanting slowed it down somewhat, the raised bed is possibly overly well drained for a tree that likes evenly moist soil (not soggy, but moist), or that for some reason the roots are failing to grow, thus stunting the top. It is also possible that late freak frosts have damaged the growing tips, or any number of other possibilities such as twig blight. According to Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, this tree is quite difficult to grow in the Midwest and "probably east" and I know from my own tree (it is surviving but also refusing to grow) it is not easy to grow on the east coast, either.

At this point I would not suggest any pruning or removing the lower branches because that foliage is valuable in providing energy to the plant. (Eventually the plant is somewhat self pruning, and will drop any unneeded lower branches naturally.)

You might try shading it with shade cloth (a fabric netting typically used over greenhouses) on a frame to see if that helps keep it cooler during the summer. Make sure it has a good wind break in the winter time. Water so that the soil stays evenly moist (not soggy but damp) all season up until it freezes, and use several inches of organic mulch over the root zone (do not allow it to touch the trunk.)

Finally, I would strongly suggest you run some soil tests to find out what type of nutrients are plentiful and which might be actually lacking. You would also want to check for any extreme in the pH. Although you are using a foliar feed, trees generally respond well to a granular application to the soil in very early spring along with applications of compost in fall and spring. I would recommend using a good quality compost to try to ensure that as many of the minors are supplied as possible and to also add organic matter on a regular basis. (The mulch will also help provide organic matter since it rots down over time.) This is really important in a raised bed situation. Often, a raised bed leaches quickly and is not very fertile after a time, the organic matter becomes depeleted, and sometimes too the mixed ingredients used to fill the bed can be unbalanced in an unexpected way. Testing is the only way to tell for sure about the soil. Your county extension should be able to help you with the tests and interpreting the results.

There are several botanic and public gardens in your area, perhaps one of them might have a tree and/or could offer some suggestions as well. Best of luck with your tree, I only wish I could be more encouraging.

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