To Prune or not to Prune

Grab those hand saws and sharpen your shears, its pruning season ladies and gentle gardeners. With winter half way through, any and all deciduous plants are well and truly dormant, the ideal time to prune the majority of trees and shrubs. It’s late enough that they won’t try throwing out any new buds, but still early enough that it gives the plants time to heal before the growing season.

First make sure you have all of your tools sharpened and cleaned. Sharper blades make cleaner cuts that are easier for your plants to heal from. Its also important to use the right tool for the job. Using hand shears on a branch that’s too thick will do more crushing and twisting than actual cutting, where as using hand saws on twigs will just rip them off.

Next, you need to identify which of your plants can be pruned now. Some trees and shrubs that bloom in early spring grow their flower buds in the fall. So if you prune these before they bloom, you’ll loose the majority of the blossoms. Plants like dogwoods, azaleas and forsythia should be saved for May, unless they need pruning for your safety or the plant’s own health. But for the rest of your shrubs and trees, its prune’n time.

Like Suzanne always says: pruning is like giving a hair cut, you can always take more off but you can’t stick it back on. And like any good hair cut, you have to know what you want the end result to be before you start. Does your shrub or tree have to stay within a certain amount of space? Or is it supposed to take a certain shape? Does it have a lot of old or sickly branches to remove? Maybe it has too much new growth? Once you have a plan in mind, start off slow and remember to take a step back every couple of cuts to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

New to pruning? No shame, everyone has to start somewhere. First thing you have to know is where and how to cut. The UGA Extension Office dose a great job of explaining this and their diagrams are super helpful.  If you’re still nervous about hurting your plants, start with more forgiving shrubs like hollies. Or ask a professional. Suzannne is a great teacher and can even bring extra help if needed.

Once you’ve mastered how to remove branches, it’s time to decide what to remove. Starting with dead or dying branches is an easy first step, they’re pretty obvious and definitely have to come out. Next go for branches that grow in the wrong direction or are crossed with another branch. This helps the plant keep its shape without growing into itself or having out of place limbs.

Removing suckers or new growth is a good third step. When a plant is stressed it often will throw out new shoots. In the picture above, you can see how many suckers this holly had grown when it’d been put in the burlap. But this isn’t actually good for the plant. This holly is putting so much energy into growing these suckers as fast as it can that it’s not taking the time to grow them properly. If allowed to remain, they will break easily and be more prone to disease. They’re also taking up all the energy the plant should be sending to it’s existing branches and leaves, i.e. why they’re called suckers.

Established trees and shrubs can also grow suckers, they’ll be new shoots on or near the trunk. But as long as you clip them off regularly they won’t get out of control.

Now, take a step back. Is it lopsided or does it have any branches sticking way out? These are the next to go, but don’t just cut these branches so that they’re even with the rest of the plant. Follow them all the way in and cut them back as far as you can get. This kills two birds with one stone, it shapes the plant and lets in more air and light. But why do we need to let air and light into a tree or shrub? What does that even mean?

Plants, especially evergreens,  that cut into the exact same shape time after time only have leaves on the surface of the shrub. Because no sunlight gets thru to the inner branches, they have no reason to throw out leaves. This decreases the number of leaves that the plant can use to photosynthesize. The height of this holly shrub needed to be lowered, for example, but when we took off the top few inches there were hardly any leaves left! But in the long run, this allowed the bush to reset it’s growing patterns and it now has move leaves than ever.

Plants live and grow in their own time. As their caretakers, its our responsibility to learn their rhythms in order to best care for them. No one is perfect when first learning how to prune, but like anything else, it takes practice and patience. Luckily plants have patience in spades.

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