Pruning – Part 2
Gardening, March 2024

Pruning – Part 2

By Kim Cantrell, Little Bird Gardens

I just spent the last few weeks talking with you all at the nursery. We agreed we were in the clear weather-wise, and then some of us had snow! And as I write this today, we are expecting a bit of a freeze again.

We’re gardeners; we talk about the weather, and Mother Nature is not done with winter, though we are. Thankfully, through all the weather changes, we have had some nice, sunny days, enough that we can get back to our winter gardening tasks.

We talked about why we prune in Part 1 of this article in February’s issue, so now let’s talk about the How of pruning in Part 2 of our series. Let me reiterate the Why of pruning here so we can be mindful as we start the process of pruning.

Why we prune

– The health of the tree or shrub is the main reason. This means removing dead or dying wood where disease and pests can get in and weaken your plant. This task alone may be all you need to do. Creating good air circulation throughout will also help with the health of your tree or shrub.

– Maintaining natural beauty. Isn’t this why we love our gardens? To enjoy the individuality and uniqueness of how a plant grows?

– In a young tree, you may prune to help create a good structure, which may mean you never have to prune that tree again.

– Corrective pruning may be necessary for a mal-pruned specimen, and will happen over the course of several years.

Let’s address the how of pruning. There is a lot to say about pruning cuts, and honestly, the best approach is to have a hands-on experience, as the telling of pruning never seems to quite translate to the tree or shrub you are confusedly looking at and wondering why it doesn’t look like the diagram in the book. Starting by learning some basic cuts will help you approach your trees and shrubs with confidence and guide you to the most beautiful of gardens.

The most valuable cuts are selective heading and thinning, and should be about all you have to do in terms of pruning. With selective heading, you reduce the length of a branch by cutting off one or two forks. You would select the longer of the two and prune it back where it meets the shorter part of the branch. Ideally the shorter branch will take over as the apical or terminal role (new leader or branch tip). This is also called reduction and will not stimulate the branch to respond by creating water sprouts (these grow straight up and there are many coming off a single cut); it keeps the natural integrity, and is easier on the health of the plant.

Thinning is a form of selective heading and is great for reducing the bulk and clutter of a plant. Thinning is taking an entire branch off from a larger branch. This is not meant to make the plant smaller. This helps remove congestion by taking off crossing branches, rubbing branches, a double leader, branches that hang on the ground, a wrong-way branch, or suckers. Now don’t be thinking you can do all these at once, and always consider the nature of the specimen. It just may be a messy tree, and doing all this could be at the expense of the tree or shrub, which could easily lead to over-pruning. Pruning is often done over many seasons to achieve a desired effect, the “long game” of gardening.

Branch size should be considered when pruning. When choosing which branch to prune out, the size of the branch you are removing should not be more than one-half the diameter of the branch you are leaving. Anything larger runs the risk of reduced health and die back. With trees, be mindful of the cut you make by not leaving stubs and not cutting into the branch collar (often easily identified as a raised ring of tissue around the base of the branch)

How much should you prune? That depends, as each specimen has a pruning budget, meaning it may take a lot of pruning or not much at all. I have found camellias take a large amount pruning with no ill effect, but give that magnolia or dogwood the side eye and she’ll send up water sprouts with the slightest missed cut. Pruning less will always be better than more. Try not to remove more than one-eighth of the leaf canopy in a year; dead wood need not be included in your budget. Each species has different requirements for pruning, and taking time to learn about those requirements before you prune is best.

Common mistakes with pruning include …

Topping your tree – This type of pruning is called non-selective heading. This only weakens your tree’s defenses causing decay, weakened branching structure, and a general drain on vitality. Topping will shorten the life of your tree, make it look ugly, and only stimulate the tree to grow back to its genetically predetermined size.

Shearing your shrubs. Also, a form of non-selective heading. Are you trying to reduce the size? This will only stimulate it to grow, and your attempts to reduce the size of the shrub will ultimately not work. Often, your attempts will create problems like water sprouts. Though you may prune in the winter and said shrub is staying nice and short, as soon as spring arrives, it will take off. The Plant Amnesty method called the grab and snip is much more effective. This means taking the longest stems and cutting them back into the interior of the shrub. Continue to do this until you get the shrub the size you like. Your pruning will last a lot longer and the shrub will retain its natural beauty.

Shearing is also high-maintenance, creates buildup of leaves and deadwood in the interior of your plant, and you will ultimately end up with an unhealthy plant. Remember, we are pruning for health and natural beauty.

Over-thinning. Too much of a good thing can result in unwanted results. Some examples are water sprouts, lion-tailing (removing too much of the internal structure), and over-skirting (which can make a tree top heavy and dangerous).

Final thoughts on pruning:

– Use good-quality, clean and sharp tools. All you need is a pair of clippers, loppers, and a folding handsaw. Sanitize your tools, especially in between species.

– Good pruning will make your job easier over time, not create more work for you, and will eventually lead to no pruning. A dream come true!

– To achieve the desired effect, pruning may take place over a year or two or three.

– Still unsure about pruning? Hire a licensed arborist or Certified Professional Pruner.

These are truly the basics, but will help you get started in the right direction. Ultimately, if we all planted the right plant in the right place, we wouldn’t even need to prune. Here’s to spring coming and all Mother Nature has to offer.

March 7, 2024

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