Go Forth And Prune


Cabin fever must be setting in because most of the email for the past month has been about pruning.Now’s is probably as good a time as any to review some of the basics. Because if you do it wrong, sometimes, you get lucky and the plant recovers. But if you do it wrong on the wrong plant, you can deform it and shorten its lifespan.

The act of pruning a plant is one of those things that I love about horticulture. You have the opportunity to blend both science and art and some of your work gives instant gratification, some comes to fruition in months and some cuts that you make won’t reveal their full results for years. There’s almost something for every gardener here. And the satisfaction from a pruning job done well can be really rewarding.

I have four basic rules to get you started.

First, know what you’re pruning. Sometimes you need to be pretty specific. For example, you may think you know how to prune a hydrangea but there are several types of hydrangeas and if you don’t know the type or species that you’re dealing with, you can easily prune it at the wrong time of the year. As a result, you can delay flowering or cause the plant not to flower for a full year.

Second, know when to prune. Some plants can be pruned just about any time of the year. Some can be pruned during two periods of time, and others can be pruned in only one time window.

You should also know the bleeders—trees and shrubs that, when pruned at the wrong time of the year, will allow sap to run or bleed and can result in weakening the plant.

Third, use the right tools. Invest in a good Felco pruner. They’re sharp, rugged and have replaceable parts.

All but one Felco are cross-cut pruners as opposed to the anvil type and they make good, clean cuts without crushing the branch or twig. There are a number of styles of Felco, and while I use a #8 my groundsmen who take care of the orchard prefer the #13, which has a longer handle.

The best models, in my opinion, are numbers 2 through 13, and #10 for the left-handed. These pruners can be purchased online or at local garden centers from about $45 and up. That’s a lot of money compared to what you can find at the big box stores but a Felco will last years and years as long as you clean it and change the blade and spring as necessary. At least every year (or more often if you really get into pruning) you should lubricate the gears and sharpen the blade.

And don’t forget a scabbard. This is a leather sheath or holster that attaches to your belt and keeps you from putting a hole in your pocket or where you’d otherwise want to stash it.

Fourth, never prune on a ladder when there is snow or ice on the ground. If you have the urge or need to go out and prune when the ground is icy or snow-covered, keep your feet on the ground.

You’ll also need a guide on how and where to prune. There are a number of excellent books and online articles. Be sure to check out YouTube for specific plant pruning tips while you’re at it. For example, if you are going to prune fruit trees you’ll probably want to learn the difference between flower buds and leaf buds.

Keep in mind that every time you make a pruning cut you are wounding the plant. Sounds serious but it isn’t. The right pruning cut will heal over and seal itself in a matter of weeks. The wrong cut, however, will heal incorrectly or not heal at all, resulting in infection and decay that may eventually damage the plant permanently.

Another way to learn pruning is to take a class at a botanical garden or arboretum. If you live in the city but garden out here you can take a class at a botanical garden. Most of these classes include both classroom and practical training outdoors. You may also be able to find a local coach who will come to your property and teach you right in your yard. You can ask about such teachers at local garden centers and orchards.

Without getting into specifics, know that fruit trees can be an exception to most of the rules that apply to other kinds of pruning. I’m most familiar with apple trees.

In the landscape and home garden, we prune these trees for dual purposes. First is to promote fruit growth and the second is to maintain shape.

In very simple terms, a properly pruned apple tree will produce more and larger apples than a non-pruned tree. That being said, I’m reminded of all the apple trees that I see upstate that are on old farms, homesteads and abandoned orchards. Some of these trees can date back to the 19th- and 20th centuries and most haven’t been pruned in decades or longer, other than what Mother Nature has done to them.

And yet each year I see them producing huge crops of apples that become a major source of food for wildlife. I’ve seen bears eating them and even coyotes. But since these trees haven’t been maintained and pruned, the fruits are small and not nearly what you’d consider eating.

Deadheading can also be considered a type of pruning. It can also prolong the flowering period of some shrubs and perennials.

Deadheading can also enhance the flowering of some shrubs the following year. This is because you are stopping the plant from going through a very stressful reproductive period when it tries to set seed. If this step is skipped, it will put that energy into producing new buds for the following year instead. This is true of some lilacs and many species of rhododendrons but not the hybrids and cultivars.

As for perennials, gaillardia and coreopsis come to mind as plants that will continue to flower or reflower if they’re deadheaded. Some feel that delphiniums should be deadheaded after their late spring flowering and pinched in late summer to prevent reblooming in the fall. The common wisdom is that allowing a delphinium to flower in the fall weakens the plant for the winter months.

But there are those plants like iris (rebloomers are the exception) and peonies that won’t rebloom even if deadheaded. Nepeta (cat mint) on the other hand will reflower if sheared. And many lavenders bloom best when the old wood is sheered to new buds in early spring.

Roses are another interesting subject when it comes to pruning. Again, if pruned at the wrong time, disaster can follow. That said, some varieties need no pruning at all, some aren’t picky and some need periodic pruning through the growing season to ensure repeat blooming.

So get yourself a Felco, do some reading, take a class or find a coach. There’s always something that can be pruned, so go forth and cut, carefully.

Keep growing.

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