Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
November, 2006
Regional Report

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Clean up long, straggly stubs (left) by making cuts just outside the raised branch collar (right).

Prune the Right Way

The gardening season may be coming to a close, but there's time to plan for dormant pruning whenever we get a spate of warm weather through the winter. I enjoy pruning in the winter because it gets me out of the house to shake off cabin fever, and because it is so easy to see exactly what I'm pruning since there are no leaves.

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!

Guiding Principles
Pruning ornamental plants doesn't have to be hard or mysterious as long as you heed a few basic principles:

1. Make all pruning cuts with the overall appearance of the shrub or tree in mind. If you don't have a reason to take off a branch, don't. Most plants have perfectly beautiful natural shapes that don't need any help from us.

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 strip the bark all the way down a trunk. Make an undercut, then cut off the branch away from the trunk, and then finally cut it at the collar to clean it up.

4. Stems need light to produce leaves, so to keep a shrub full all the way to the center, prune it to open the interior to plenty of light.

5. If you are attempting to reduce a shrub's size somewhat, 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 foliage to photosynthesize food for the plant.

8. High-quality, sharp bypass pruning shears and loppers are as important as the pruning process itself.

9. Pruning paint is not recommended except in special cases since a pruning cut will heal perfectly well left on its own.

10. If you have to prune to keep a plant in bounds, the plant is most likely in the wrong spot. If you have to prune only to give a plant the shape you want, you have chosen the wrong plant.

11. If a plant has crossing or interfering branches, select the branch that is the least conspicuous and prune it out at a main stem. It may hurt to cut off a large branch, but the crossing and rubbing will only get worse and may destroy both branches as the plant matures.

12. If a young plant has a double leader and its natural shape is with a single leader, remove one of the stems. You will have a much better looking and healthier plant down the road.

13. Naturally shaped hedges, such as honeysuckle and privet, benefit from annual renewal pruning. Hedges that are sheared into a formal shape need regular pruning to keep them looking good. Try to keep the top rounded to shed snow, and the bottom of the hedge wider than the top to allow sun to reach the lower branches to keep the hedge full and healthy.

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