Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
February, 2011
Regional Report

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A properly made pruning cut with no stub left heals rapidly, closing off the wound.

Nine Pruning Mistakes to Avoid

It is pruning season. Mid to late winter is a good time to make necessary pruning cuts on many of our deciduous landscape and orchard shrubs and trees. Notice that I said "necessary". Just to prune a plant because it is that time of the year may lead to problems.

Before heading out with hand pruners, loppers, or saw in hand spend some time learning about the best way to prune the shrubs, trees and woody vines in your landscape or backyard orchard. With each species there is a best approach to pruning. When you prune, have a goal in mind and a purpose for each cut you make.

One basic thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between training a young plant and pruning an older one. Training is the process of building the basic structure of the plant through well planned pruning that creates trunk(s), scaffold branches or in the case of shrubs, a basic shape or structural form.

Training is important because it creates a strong, attractive tree, shrub, or vine and in the case of fruit trees, a more productive plant in years to come. During the first five or so years of a woody plant's life the pruning cuts you do or don't make will have a great impact on the rest of the plant's life.

Once a plant has had a basic form or structure established and is of moderate size less pruning is usually needed. Pruning during the middle years primarily serves the purpose of maintaining a strong form or in the case of fruit plants, a productive interior.

Mature ornamentals need even less pruning. Removing broken, diseased, or rubbing limbs, and some general minor shaping of shrubs and vines is the main task at this stage.

There are many resources to guide you online and in books. Your local Extension Office may also have helpful literature on training and pruning ornamental and fruit producing plants. So I'll focus instead on some of the common pruning mistakes people make. There are hundreds that deserve mention, but here are nine common no-no's to get us started.

1) Dull, poorly adjusted tools. A clean cut made with sharp pruners heals the fastest. Sharpen your pruner blade and make sure the moving parts are well oiled. I am biased toward bypass type pruners as opposed to the anvil types where the blade comes to a stop on a flat surface.

2) Pruning plants that only bloom in the spring before bloom. These spring bloomers set buds in mid to late summer for the following year's show. This includes plants like forsythia, azaleas, spirea, flowering quince, and "once blooming" roses. So wait to prune them until after they bloom to avoid cutting away bloom buds.

3) Shearing or hedging plants. While this technique is good for a hedge, many of our shrubs do better when entire shoots are removed back to where they join another branch or in some cases, to the ground. Look up the difference between a thinning cut and a hedging cut. Most of the time, thinning cuts are the best choice. This is the case with fruit trees and bushes and for virtually all blooming landscape ornamentals.

4) Letting hedges get top heavy. Those evergreen hedges in your landscape will tend to grow outward at the top. You need to shear this back to vertical side walls or make them even a little narrower at the top. If not, the broad top will shade out the lower interior of the plant so instead of a wall of foliage you end up with more of an umbrella of foliage and a see-through lower section.

5) Leaving stubs. Make your cuts back to where a branch joins another branch. A stub will just die and in time, be a place where decay can enter the adjoining branch.

6) Waiting too long to decide which of two or more vigorous upright shoots to leave as the main trunk. If you think it is hard to cut away one of the double trunk shoots that often form on ornamental or fruit trees, be assured that it will be harder later and leave much more of a wound on the plant. Pick one, cut away the other and don't stop to mourn the loss!

7) Not using the "three-cut method" when removing a large limb. If you try to remove a large branch with one cut it will end up stripping away the bark and leaving a very ugly, slow to heal wound. There are numerous diagrams online that show you how to do this with three cuts.

8) Leaving too many branches on fruit trees. I know you can overdo it, but many people hate to cut off branches that need removing. Unlike ornamental plants, the goal with your fruit trees is to produce a big yield. Those trees produce many times more blooms than they need to set a full load of fruit. It takes light to produce the sugars that make fruit great. If you don't remove the tall suckers and watersprouts that shade out the interior of the tree, it will become unproductive in the interior and you'll do most of your harvesting from a ladder.

9) Overpruning a plant. Some people get busy cutting and don't know when to stop! The end result is some pretty bizarre landscape plants that would seem more at home in a Dr. Seus book. Only prune as much as is needed to accomplish the goal of training, shaping, or correcting. Then put down the pruners and step away so no one gets hurt! Some common examples of overpruning and mispruning are our lovely southern crape myrtles that are hacked back excessively each year and the ill-advised practice of pollarding trees, which leaves them looking rather like a giant hat rack!

So do some self education on pruning before heading outside with tools in hand. Your landscape and orchard plants will be more beautiful and productive in years to come.

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