Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
December, 2004
Regional Report

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For the health of the tree, make pruning cuts just outside the swollen branch collar at the base of limbs.

Pruning Primer

The weather may tell us the gardening season is coming to a close, but crisp winter days are a perfect time to do a little pruning. Pruning is a great rejuvenator for plants as well as gardeners, and whenever I need to stretch after sitting indoors for too long, I head outside with pruners in hand. Plants are mostly dormant by now, and the lack of leaves shows the branching structure beautifully. It's much easier to prune when you can see the framework of a plant.

The one key element to firmly establish in your mind before even picking up a saw or pair of pruning shears is that pruning should be done to enhance a plant's natural shape. In other words, pruning a horizontally layered cockspur hawthorn into a lollipop, or trying to keep a 30-foot spruce at 10 feet will only frustrate you and make the plants look abnormal.

Proper, regular pruning can keep deciduous shrubs and trees healthy, vigorous, and at full blooming capacity. If you follow a plant's natural shape and prune lightly at regular intervals, a well-pruned shrub will not even look like it was pruned when you are finished. This should be your goal!

It pays to know exactly what you are pruning, and to keep in mind that not everything needs to be pruned. If you don't have a reason for taking off a branch or limb, don't. Also, spring-blooming shrubs, such as lilacs, forsythia, and some spireas, have already set their flower buds for next year. Wait to prune them until after they bloom so you won't prune off all the blossoms.

The only reasons to cut off branches are to eliminate crossing, diseased, or injured branches, to "head back" branches for aesthetic reasons, and to thin to open the crown to more light. Of course, hedges, evergreens, fruit trees, and espalier plants all have their own pruning principles.

Pruning Guidelines
1. Make all pruning cuts with the overall appearance of the shrub or tree in mind.
2. To avoid stubs, always take a branch back to a main stem, another branch, or an outward-facing bud.
3. For large branches, always follow the three-cut process. It's heartbreaking to cut corners and end up stripping the bark all the way down a trunk!
4. Stems need light to produce leaves, so prune to open the shrub to plenty of light.
5. If you are attempting to reduce a shrub's size, prune the branches at different heights to achieve a natural look.
6. To keep a shrub somewhat symmetrical, remove stems from all sides of the shrub equally. It helps to step back periodically and look at the shape of the entire plant as you are pruning.
7. Don't remove any more than 1/3 of the shrub at a time in order to leave enough leaf surfaces to provide food for the plant.
8. High-quality, sharp, bypass pruning shears and loppers are as important as the pruning process itself.
9. Place the pruning blade right next to the branch to get as flush a cut as possible.
10. A pulling motion makes the best cut with a pruning saw.
11. Pruning paint is not recommended except in special cases; a pruning cut will heal perfectly well on its own.

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