Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
January, 2009
Regional Report

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A well tended garden is a joy to behold. Pruning keeps plants to a size that fits the landscape.

Ready, Set, Prune!

Pruning -- it's what winter is about. Well, except for the cabbages and broccoli and pansies and cool-season stuff that we like to grow. The bulk of your winter gardening chores will be about getting the shrubs and trees in your garden in shape for the growing season.

When Plants are Naked
Pruning of deciduous trees and shrubs should be done when the plants are sleeping, usually mid January to mid February. Any plant that loses its leaves in the winter is a contender for dormant-season pruning. Fruit trees, grapes and roses are examples of plants that should be pruned now.

Size Matters
It's important to reduce the overall size of fruit trees so that you can reach the fruit next summer. If left unpruned, many fruit trees would grow to a tremendous height, making harvesting more of a chore than it already is. The fruit yield would also go down because by not pruning, you are not encouraging the plant to create more branches. Multiple young branches equal more fruit.

Dormant-season pruning also allows for the introduction of light into the center of a plant by eliminating foliage that crosses through the center. More light means higher fruit production. By eliminating the center growth, you also increase air circulation which in turn helps to prevent fungal disease.

It's as Easy as One, Two, Three!
The first step when pruning a deciduous plant is to remove any dead, diseased, or injured wood. Identify dead wood by scraping the bark in an inconspicuous area. If the wood is green beneath the bark, the branch is still alive. If the wood beneath the bark is brown, the branch is most likely dead. I usually start at the tip of a suspected dead branch and work my way back to the main trunk in small increments.

After removing any suspect wood, prune roughly for height. Some hardy roses, for example, would hold their flowers 10 feet in the air if left unchecked. Pruning for height isn't an exact science. Just use loppers to get the general size you desire.

Once you have reduced the size, you can prune for shape and direct growth.

Fruit trees have two kinds of wood growing from the main branches; fruiting spurs and water sprouts. The fruiting spurs are usually darker in color and are crooked and growing close to the main trunk. Remove these and you remove next year's harvest. The water sprouts can be identified by their growth habit -- they usually grow straight up from the main branch, are light in color, and are extremely vigorous. This varies somewhat with different species of trees, but you are usually safe removing the water sprouts.

Many people recommend pruning to an outward-facing bud and if you have good eyes, by all means do so. I find it's easy to pull off tender new growth that is growing toward the center of the plant later in the season. The main thing is to not leave stubs which will die back and look horrible. Cut no more than 1/4 inch away from any bud to prevent stubs. Wood that is removed from a main trunk or branch should be cut flush to the branching collar (the slightly swollen bit of growth at the base of most branches).

Evergreen shrubs such as citrus should also be pruned in winter. Make sure that you are not removing any potential flowers. Prune for overall height, remove any center growth, and lightly cut back the tips of the branches to encourage bushy growth.

Never remove more that 25 percent of the growth from any plant, deciduous or evergreen, and keep your clippers sharp. Do not fertilize until you begin to see new growth. Rake up fallen leaves when you are finished pruning, and remember, a bad pruning job is like a bad haircut, it all grows back eventually.

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