First published on garden.org on March 2, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn
It's pruning time in the orchards of Edneyville, an apple-producing region just south of Asheville, North Carolina. At first sight it would appear that these trees grow naturally in their characteristic spreading shape with low-hanging, horizontal branches. But appearances are deceiving: Orchardists methodically prune their trees every winter to encourage that growth pattern.
Prune With a Goal
Many gardeners are reluctant to prune, fearing they'll harm their plants. But pruning a plant correctly can improve its vigor and attractiveness. The keys to pruning are having a goal in mind, then doing your homework so you understand the best technique for each type of plant. You should have a reason for every cut you make. Some plants, such as forsythia, are so vigorous you can cut them down to the ground and they'll regrow. But most other plants prefer a lighter touch.
When to Prune
Some plants benefit from a second light pruning in midsummer. Orchardists often prune the young, upright shoots on apple trees, for example, because these branches don't produce fruit. The growers want to limit vigorous vegetative growth and redirect the plant's energy to the fruiting wood. You might want to prune errant branches on a shrub to keep the plant tidy.
In most cases, it's a bad idea to prune in autumn because this encourages new growth that may be damaged by the winter cold. Fall pruning can also interfere with a plant's hardening off process.
Follow the Natural Shape
Formal hedges, such as boxwood, are often sheared to geometric shapes. However, sheared hedges will form most of their foliage on the branch tips, leaving the interior of the shrub leafless. If you want to reduce the size of the shrub or encourage a more natural shape, you'll have to do it over several seasons, cutting some branches back to the main trunk to allow light to penetrate and to encourage its natural growth pattern.
Here are a few pruning guidelines:
2. Prune back to another branch or outward-facing bud.
3. When cutting large branches, cut halfway through from the top, then make a cut underneath, then finish the cut from the top. The bottom cut prevents the bark from stripping when the branch falls.
4. A rule of thumb is to remove no more than one third of the growth in any one season. If you need to remove more, wait a year to avoid stressing the plant too much.
5. Use sharp tools for clean cuts.
6. Avoid sealers unless there is a specific reason to use one, such as to minimize attack by borers. In general, pruning cuts heal faster when left unsealed.
7. Walk around the plant as you prune, to keep the plant reasonably symmetrical.
8. Stay safe. If you're not up to a big pruning job, hire a professional.
I love driving by the orchards and seeing all the pruned branches on the ground; it's a signal that warm weather is just around the corner. So take your cue from the apple growers and head out to prune on a sunny, early spring day.
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