Pruning serves multiple purposes:
- Shows plants, shrubs and trees at their best
- Pruned plants produce more and better fruit and flowers
- Improves the health of diseased plants
- Strengthens trees stronger and makes them safer
- Channels growth away from structures and traffic
See the Pruning Glossary section at the end of this post for terms and their definitions.
When to Prune
Heavy pruning should be done in spring, as it stimulates rapid regrowth. Prune evergreens in the spring and deciduous trees and shrubs in late winter to stimulate new growth in the spring. Prune shrubs that bloom in the spring after they have blossomed so that there is still time for growth and to set new buds before winter.
Summer pruning does little to stimulate growth. Hot, dry conditions stress plants, so avoid heavy pruning. Limit summer pruning to removing suckers, and to thin summer-flowering shrubs after they have bloomed.
Mid to late fall is the time for only thinning cuts. Heading cuts will stimulate soft new growth easily damaged by frost. Do not prune a plant while it is dropping leaves.
By late winter, leaves have dropped and you can easily see the form of the plant and therefore how to improve it. Pruning in winter stimulates growth in the spring.
Pruning Do’s and Don’ts
Remove all dead wood first, to improve health and appearance, then prune from the bottom of the plant up. With larger plants, prune from the inside out. Next, look for branches that cross and rub. Keep the branch that is healthiest and better situated, that either grows upward or fills in empty space, and prune the other branch.
For shrubs, prune with the objective of opening up the
center of the shrub, and cleaning up the base of the shrub. This will allow more light to penetrate and more air to circulate, improving the health of the shrub.
Prune back branches that reach the ground, crowd other plants, or are too close to structures and walkways.
The most common pruning mistakes are:
- pruning in an attempt to make plants smaller again
- tree topping
- indiscriminate shearing
The only cure for bad pruning is time. Most plants will return to their natural state within a few years.
Most pruning consists of one or two cuts: thinning cuts, or heading cuts.
A thinning cut removes the entire branch. Use a thinning cut to open up a plant to allow more sunlight to penetrate into its interior, to redirect growth, or to establish good structure.
A heading cut removes only part of a branch that results in rapid, bushy growth just below the cut. Use a heading cut to shorten a plant and stimulate latent buds. This is the nonselective technique used to shape formal hedges and topiary.
Keep your pruning tools sharp, as the best tools to use for pruning are those that will cut cleanly and easily. Use pruning shears for stems and twigs, lopping shears for branches that are the diameter of your finger or larger, and a pruning saw for branches larger than that.
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Branch collar: The part of the trunk that holds the branch to the trunk and revealed as the bulge at the base of the branch.
Branch crotch: The angle where a tree branch meets the trunk or parent stem.
Bread bud: When a latent bud is stimulated into growing into a leaf or twig.
Cane: A long, slender branch that usually originates directly from the roots.
Leader: The main or tallest shoot of a tree trunk.
Pinching: Nipping the end bud of a twig or stem with your fingertips to discourage further growth in that direction.
Thinning cut: Cutting a limb off at the base, either at ground level or at a branch collar.
Heading cut: Cutting a branch back to a side bud or shoot.
Skirting or limbing up: Pruning off the lower limbs of a tree.
Sucker: An upright shoot growing from the root or graft union; also a straight, rapidly growing shoot that grows in response to an injury or poor pruning.
Topiary: Plants sculpted into tightly sheared geometric shapes or likenesses of animals, people or objects.
All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors