Learning proper pruning for your trees and shrubs can help you keep your landscape in the best shape. There are different techniques for pruning and different times of the year when pruning is appropriate.
Deciduous Trees and Bushy Plants
Woody trees and plants are best pruned in early spring while they are still dormant. However, some plants “bleed,” meaning sap runs out of the cuts. While bleeding does not harm the plant or tree, it may bother you. When pruning plants that bleed (such as maple, box elder, black walnut, elm, birch, and honeylocust), you can wait until they are fully leafed out.
For woody bushes such as lilac, spirea, mock orange, viburnum, and forsythia, prune them immediately after they finish blooming. If you wait until after late summer, you will remove next year’s flowers because many of these plants bloom only on old wood from the previous season. Remove the old flower clusters by cutting back to the first branch producing leaves. This technique makes the plant look neater and prevents the formation of seed capsules, directing more energy into the growth and production of next year’s flowers.
For shrubs that bloom exclusively on new wood (such as many of the hydrangeas), you can prune in the fall if needed.
How to Prune Branches
You can easily cut the small branches of bushes and the thin, small branches of a tree all the way through with only a single cut. However, when removing a large branch on a tree, you need to make three cuts to avoid tearing the bark:
- Make the first cut on the under side of the branch, one-fourth to one-third of the way through the branch, at a location about 12 inches from where the branch meets the trunk.
- Next, make a cut completely through the branch on the topside of the branch, about two inches farther from the trunk than the first cut.
- Make the last cut on the branch just beyond the branch collar. (Leaving a stub encourages disease, and cutting the main trunk produces a wound that heals more slowly.)
Proper Pruning for Evergreens
You can prune evergreens any time between mid-April and mid-August; just make sure that the new growth has hardened if you prune in early spring. Do not trim evergreens after mid-August because they may not recover from their wounds in time to withstand the winter.
Determine the amount to prune evergreens based on the presence of their branch foliage. Do not cut beyond the green foliage portion. If you lightly prune evergreens each summer, they will eventually become thicker and fuller. Not pruning results in scraggly-looking trees.
Larger junipers and similar plants may need to be reduced in size. To trim these plants, follow the branch to be cut until you find new small growth that parallels the branch. Make your cut diagonally, just beyond the reach of this smaller, parallel branch.
If your evergreen has lost its top due to injury, you need to “build” a new top. To build a new top:
- Select the largest of the whorls (set of branches growing from the same place) nearest the top and gently bend it up.
- Tie the branch to an attached brace, using a non-girdling material such as cloth.
- Cut back the other lateral branches so that they cannot compete with the branch chosen as the new top. Be sure to cut back to a side branch or bud and to leave no stubs.
No matter what type of tree you are pruning, the practices of topping, hat-racking, and heading are not recommended. These methods of trimming are not proper pruning techniques, and they cause small shoots, called suckers, to form near the cut surface. These suckers are weak and rarely attractive, and they can distort the shape of the tree. And once improperly pruned, a tree may never return to its characteristic form.
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