Why Do We Prune?
If plants grow in the wild without being pruned, then why do we need to prune our landscape plants? Maybe because…we love them! Pruning is done to remove unhealthy stems and encourage new growth, to prevent disfiguring from overcrowding, and to maintain a desirable shape and size for your landscape. Many people are so afraid of making mistakes (or killing their plants) that they shy away from pruning entirely. With a few knowledgeable pointers, even a novice can prune with confidence!
Why Prune Now?
Pruning while plants are dormant offers several benefits. To start with, you can see everything! Without the cover of leaves, a plant’s branching structure is readily visible so it’s easy to see crossing branches, suckers, and water sprouts. And no leaves means easy access – it’s so much easier to reach through bare shrubs and make clean cuts. Plant diseases and harmful insects are dormant, too, so your plants are at less risk when you prune them in late winter/early spring. Lastly, dormant pruning is a perfect way to spend time outside – provided you choose a sunny, not-so-cold day – and get a jump start on the growing season.
What Are the Best Tools?
With so many to choose from, finding the right tools can be a daunting task. A typical landscape requires just 3-4 tools: a pair of bypass pruners (for all basic cutting), a pair of loppers (for thicker branches and those just out of reach), a folding hand-saw (for branches too thick for the loppers), and a pole-saw (for tree branches out of range). Bypass pruners are superior to anvil pruners because they make clean cuts every time and won’t leave behind a ragged edge, which is much better for plants. They cost a little more than the anvil pruners, but their blades can be sharpened and replaced so they last for years. There are even specialized models available for left-handed gardeners and those with smaller hands. Loppers (preferably with a bypass blade) give you a mechanical advantage over hand pruners and are useful when pruning thicker stems. A hand-saw has a double-serrated blade to allow easy cutting through thick shrub stems and thinner tree limbs. A folding model makes for safer storage and is easily pocketed as you move through the yard. For removing the occasional tree branch, a pole pruner extends your access without the need for a ladder.
First, Do No Harm
The most important thing to know is how to make a kind cut. Plants respond well to pruning when cut in the right place in the right way. Every stem has a little node at the base called a branch collar. Make sure you don’t cut the branch collar (in other words, too close to the main stem). A perpendicular cut just outside the branch collar is ideal; this allows the cut to eventually seal over. When you take away the pruners, the cut should look circular instead of oblong. If you cut into the branch collar, the new plant tissue will never fully close over the wound and the tree or shrub will be left vulnerable.
On smaller branches or on the outer tips, always make your cut just above a bud. When spring growth emerges your cut will be hidden and there won’t be any dead tips or “sore thumbs” sticking out, detracting from your otherwise lovely shrub.
How Should I Start Pruning?
The first step is to remove any obviously dead or damaged stems. Don’t stress out if you truly cannot tell if a branch is dead - you can always wait to see if the buds swell or leaves emerge in spring. Next, remove any disfigured or undesirable growth like water sprouts or suckers. Both grow at ungraceful 90-degree angles from the main stems; water sprouts are seen on branches, suckers come up at the base or from the roots. Crowded branches will cross and rub against each other, sometimes creating an open wound or weak spot. Remove the offending branches to eliminate the rubbing. Not sure which one to cut? Stand back and evaluate each stem, then keep the nicer looking one.