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Pruning is probably one of the most misunderstood garden procedures. Lack of knowledge or anxiety about pruning often leads to major mistakes or complete avoidance of the task.
Some gardeners are reluctant to prune anything while others become chainsaw specialists. Many plants need little if any pruning while hedges may need to be pruned several times a year. Some larger trees should never be pruned severely if their natural form is to be maintained.
Most basic pruning can be done with two tools, a pair of good quality by-pass pruners and a sharp pruning saw. Loppers tend to bruise the cut wood and telescopic pole pruners are not very accurate when cutting.
There are several basic reasons for pruning. The first three are called the three “Ds,” dead, damaged and diseased. Branches or other parts of the plant that may have been broken by animals or snow, weakened from lack of light or infected with disease which has the potential to spread, need to be pruned.
Other reasons to prune include the desire to maintain form and size, stimulate more flower and fruit production, maintain health and vigour and create renewal growth. Contrary to popular belief, pruning most plants will stimulate new growth. All plants have a ratio between their root system and their top growth. Pruning away a large portion of their top growth disrupts this ratio and stimulates the plant to develop excess new growth.
Some plants react by sending up dozens of water sprouts and sucker shoots. Others will not generate new growth on old, brown wood.
Knowing when to prune can be a puzzle for which there is no simple rule. You have to know the growth pattern of the plant. Making a plan of your garden, listing all the plants and doing some research to know pruning times might be a good starting point.
Most flowering shrubs fall into two categories. Those that form buds one summer and flower the following spring are generally pruned immediately after they flower. This allows time for the plant to form new growth and flower buds for the next season. Shrubs that form buds on new spring growth are generally pruned in late Winter or early Spring.
Fruit trees are best pruned in the late Winter or early Spring when dormant, before they leaf out. Pruning fruit trees for fruit management may require professional advice. Vines like wisteria and grapes are often pruned back to two or three buds on their new growth.
In addition to proper timing you have to decide if you are only shortening back the branches or doing some renewal pruning. Many shrubs need to be renewal-pruned by cutting back old stalks to ground level to encourage new vigorous stalks to form.
When pruning in the late Winter or early Spring, be aware that some trees bleed sap very early in the season. However, this bleeding is natural and should not deter you from pruning to keep trees properly shaped and healthy. Eastern maples, birch and grapes are some examples of trees that bleed.
Check out some more pruning information.