Everything You Need to Know About Pruning

We love sharing useful tips with our clients and customers – that’s why we strive to discover the best resources and information to share with our readers, especially when it comes to general maintenance practices like watering and pruning. This article comes to you from one of our favorite resource guides, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook (we recommend tracking down a copy for yourself to have in your gardening library). The following passage aims to demystify the practice of pruning, and includes useful tips for when and how to prune, as well as which tools are best for the job! Check it out…

Pruning Demystified

Until you understand its simple logic, pruning can be one of gardening’s great mysteries. Pruning plants for the right reasons with the right tools at the right time and in the right places on the plant can make both your plants and the landscape that surrounds them more refined and more beautiful. There are many reasons to prune, and all of them make good sense.

Healthier More Vital Plants

Cut off dead or diseased branches not only to improve a plant’s appearance, but also to prevent the spread of disease. Remove crossed and rubbing branches, a condition that can wear away protective bark, compromising the plant’s health. Prune back limbs damaged by ice, heavy wet snow, strong winds, or mechanical damage. In some cases, you may have to remove whole plants, while in others only damaged areas need cutting.

Beauty

Good pruning can show off or even improve the basic form of structure of the plant.

Safety

If a low branch extends over a path, you may need to remove it to prevent tripping. Phone the power company if high limbs interfere with power lines. Prune back bushy plants growing near a road or at corners where the plants may block a driver’s line of vision on the road or emerging from a driveway.

Tender-Loving Tool Care

Whatever tools you choose, keep them clean, since dirty blades can spread pests and infections from plant to plant. Disinfect surfaces with rubbing alcohol applied to a clean rag or paper towel. Tuck a fresh rag in your belt for wiping dirt and sap from the blades before each cut.

When necessary, follow the manufacturer’s directions for taking apart pruners and the saws. Remove rust from blades with fine sandpaper or a wire brush. Oil joints and springs regularly, and use a sharpening stone to hone the outer beveled edge of dull blades. Taking good care of saws and pruners ensures clean healthy cuts that benefit rather than damage the tree.

Pruning a Branch

Dr. Alex Shigo, former chief scientist in the U.S. Forest Service, discusses natural target pruning in his book Modern Arboriculture. He recommends that proper pruning cuts be made close to the branch collar (the bulge under a branch where branch and stem tissues intersect) not flush with the trunk. Unlike humans, who heal by renewing injured tissue, trees compartmentalize, or close off, an injury from the rest of the tree by forming new wood over the damaged spot. Flush cuts that take off the branch collar enlarge the wound and spread more decay within the tree.

Let pruning wounds heal naturally. Don’t paint them with wound dressing; dressings slow the healing process and keep the healthy new wood from forming.

Trees look their best when natural growth patterns guide your pruning efforts. Don’t top trees. Topping is the practice of cutting back, or “heading”, a tree’s large branches, leaving long, ugly stubs from from which many weak sprouts will grow. Topping destroys a tree’s looks and makes it prone to disease and decay. It’s better to remove a too-big tree, replacing it with one that suits the site, than to take this drastic and mistaken measure to control tree growth.

Timing Your Pruning

Among the factors that determine the best time to prune woodies are why you’re growing them and when they bloom. Did you plant them for lush leaves, lavish flowers, or luscious fruits? Do they blood in winter, spring, summer, or fall? And when do they form flower buds on their branches?

Basis Pruning Guidelines

Pruning deciduous trees and shrubs during late fall and winter dormancy helps limit contact with insects or fungi, which tend to be more active in warmer weather. Dormant-pruning plants in the rose family helps prevent fireblight but may affect that year’s flowers. Pruning when the trees are bare also allows you see the shape of the tree.

Flowering Trees and Shrubs

The general rule is to prune flowering shrubs and trees that bloom on new wood (the current growth) in lat winter or early spring before the start of this season’s growth. Prune those that bloom on old wood (stems developed before the current growing season) soon after flowering to avoid removing this year’s blossoms.

Problematic Branches

You can remove dead, or diseased branches any time. It’s best to remove crossed or rubbing branches when dormant, especially if they ruin the plant’s structural appeal by making it look congested. Many shrubs need little beyond that.

If you’re busy, you may not have much choice about when to prune: you just prune when you have free time. That’s okay even for flowering trees and shrubs, if you don’t mind sacrificing one season’s flowers. By selectively pruning shrubs blooming on old wood soon before they bloom, you’ll give up some flowers. But if, for example, you clip a lilac hedge in late summer after if has set buds for the following spring you may be cutting off all the flower.

Pruning Tools That are a Cut Above

Hand Pruners

Use hand pruners for stems up to 1/2 inch wide that are easy to reach. You’ll find two kinds of hand pruners, each of which has specific uses. Bypass pruners have two blades and cut like scissors. The upper blade curves past the lower blade, making it easy to cut cleanly into live green wood. Anvil pruners on the other hand, make rough cuts with knifelike action. They are best for thinning brush and removing hard or dead wood because their upper cutting edge squeezes the stem against an anvil or metal cutting block. Keep your cutting blade sharp, because a dull cutting edge can mash the stem. If you want one pair of hand pruners, then splurge on the best bypass pruners that you can afford. They give you more flexibility and do less damage to live wood.

Loppers

Similar to hand pruners in the way they work, lopers usually have longer handles and blades that let you cut branches up to 2 inches across. They come with either bypass or anvil-style blades. Loppers are good for reaching deep into a shrub and thinning excess growth, for cutting thorny branches, and for more forceful cuts because of the extra leverage the long handles provide.

Pruning Saw

A folding pruning saw is another useful item. I use my saw, which has a blade about 6 1/2 inches long, to make clean cuts in stems less than 4 inches across. The pullback action required for cutting makes pruning the fat stems of my dieback paulownia fast and easy each fall.

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