Guidance for pruning when the bough breaks

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

– “Mother Goose’s Melody," c. 1765


Despite its catastrophic implications, “Rock-a-bye Baby” has been a favorite lullaby for centuries. The source of the rhyme is a mystery, but one theory has it that an English traveler wrote it after observing Native American mothers rocking their babies in cradles suspended from tree branches.

There have been a lot of “bough breaks” in our area after recent storms. Mike Bartlett, owner of Mike Bartlett Tree Service in Central Point, told me “it’s been crazy” removing so many damaged limbs and trees.

Apart from presenting an injury hazard, the jagged edges of a broken branch will slow the healing process, because the rough edges make it difficult for healthy bark to grow over the wound. In addition, broken branches expose plant tissue to insects and diseases, so it’s best to remove damaged limbs and fallen trees as soon as possible. Bartlett urged residents to call an arborist for big jobs to prevent injury to themselves and damage to their trees.

Even with smaller broken branches, knowing where and how to make a proper cut helps ensure that the tree or shrub will make a full recovery. Often, small broken branches should be pruned back to where they join a larger branch or main stem. On the other hand, if healthy branches are still intact between a main stem and the breakage, the damaged branch may be pruned back to where a healthy secondary branch protrudes.

Using a clean, sharp, pruning knife or saw, a three-step cutting procedure is recommended. First, make a partial cut, about 1/4 of the way through, on the underside of the damaged branch, several inches from the main stem or trunk if possible, to prevent further tearing. Second, make a full cut through the limb, several inches out from the first cut if you can, so the damaged portion falls off cleanly and safely. Third, make the final cut at a slightly outward angle just outside the branch collar, which joins the branch to the trunk or main stem.

Don't leave any portion of branch long enough to hang a coat on protruding from the trunk. This section will become an unsightly dead stob that allows insects and fungal diseases to attack the inner tissue.

Frequently when a branch breaks close to the trunk or main stem, the weight of the branch tears away some of the bark. Most tree specialists agree that coating the exposed area with pruning paint does not speed the healing process, and using petroleum-based products can cause even more damage.

Some arborists advise using a clean, sharp knife or wood chisel to carefully trim back loose bark and smooth out the rough edges of the tear. This will allow the new bark, called callous tissue, to grow over the injured area more quickly. Bartlett cautions against inadvertently cutting into the tree’s fragile cambium (greenish inner bark), as these layers transport water and nutrients between the root system and leaves. He suggests letting the callous tissue develop over the injured area for a year or two before cutting away the remaining loose tissue.

For pictures and more information about what to do when the bough breaks, see my blog at

As for “Rock-a-bye Baby,” another theory holds the verse was written as a political satire. In fact, the earliest written version of the rhyme included a footnote: "This may serve as a warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at

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