Tips For Pruning Your Landscape

Pruning tree with pruning sheers

There’s nothing like planning a holiday weekend cookout to spark the idea of pruning – you know, touching up the landscape before company arrives. The main reasons to prune are –

  • Dead, Diseased, and Damaged Branches – these should be removed when you see them.
  • Size Control – the plant is too large for the space.
  • Aesthetics – the plant was grown for a specific shape or form.
  • Plant Health – pruning allows light & air to circulate in the canopy which can reduce insect and disease problems.

Pruning Tools

A basic set for a home gardener is as follows –

  • One anvil-style hand pruner,
  • One by-pass (scissor) style hand pruner,
  • One pair of loppers that can cut 1-2″ branches,
  • One pruning or bow saw.

Pruning Techniques

There are (3) basic techniques for pruning shrubs –

  • Heading back is used to control size – individual branches are shortened.
  • Thinning removes an entire branch back to the main trunk or ground. It’s used to open up the bushes that are too thick.
  • Shearing is used to clip foundation shrubs such as hollies and boxwoods.

As for how much to prune – use the one-third rule. Try not to take out more than one-third of a plant at a time. Doing so could cause stress to the plant.

Having said that, there are several broadleaf ornamentals that benefit from severe pruning since they grow fast and get bigger and bigger every year.  Some of these plants would be Chinese and Japanese Holly, Photinia, Ligustrum, Osmanthus, Elaeagnus, Waxmyrtle, Rose of Sharon, Hydrangea, and Spiraea.

Severe pruning will make these plants smaller, and realize that this measure is only temporary. In a few years, you’ll need to repeat the process. Consider creating a multi-stem, small tree from the overgrown shrub. Instead of trimming the entire top off, remove many of the lower branches all the way to the ground. Leave 3-4 well-spaced branches and thin the top. If sprouts appear at the base, keep them trimmed off. Once created, the tree-form plant will require much less attention over the years. Favorites for this category include Burford holly, photinia, camellia japonica and sasanqua, wax myrtle, and Amelanchier.

How To Prune Your Tree

To prune trees, you’ll need the pruning/bow saw. The cut should be made just outside the “branch collar,” a region of slightly raised bark at the base of each branch. This will allow the tree to heal itself naturally. Pruning sealants are NOT recommended. A pole saw might come in handy for higher branches, but take precautions to avoid injury from falling branches.

Before cutting a tree branch, make a small cut on the bottom side of the branch. Otherwise, the weight of the branch may cause the bark to peel off the tree.

In general, topping is not recommended. It is extremely stressful on trees, and the regrowth tends to be structurally weak. If the tree is too large for the site, consider spending a few extra dollars to have it removed, then replace it with something more appropriate.

Remember, tree work can be dangerous. Leave the big jobs to the experienced professionals.

Timing is a key factor in pruning. Late winter and early spring are the best times to prune – before bud break. This is true for summer flowering trees, shrubs, and most evergreen shrubs. Pruning will be stressful on the plants, and one of the most stressful periods is during bud break and leaf expansion in the spring. Therefore it is recommended to complete the pruning chores before then.

When To Prune

Here’s a brief list that can help you determine what to prune when –

Early Spring: summer flowering trees & shrubs that bloom on new growth.
Late Spring: spring flowering shrubs immediately after flowers fade.
Early Summer: pinch/trim half of the candles on pines & other needled evergreens.
Summer: summer flowering trees & shrubs as the blossoms fade.
Autumn: prune long rose canes.
Winter: berried shrubs and trees – use the cuttings for holiday decorations

Pruning Late Winter/Early Spring

Here is a partial list of plants that are best pruned in late winter/early spring.

  • Abelia
  • Callicarpa
  • Buddleia
  • Chaste-tree
  • Crapemyrtle
  • Hibiscus
  • Roses
  • Hypericum
  • Ligustrum
  • Hollies
  • Nandina
  • Photinia
  • Wax myrtle
  • Junipers (tip prune or light shaping only)

Pruning After Bloom

Many local gardens are centered on spring-flowering shrubs. As a general rule, prune these plants after they complete their spring show of blooms. Here is a partial list of trees and shrubs that fall into this category.

  • Azalea
  • Rhododendron
  • Barberry
  • Blueberry
  • Cotoneaster
  • Flowering Dogwood
  • Forsythia
  • Quince
  • Bush Honeysuckle
  • Winter Jasmine
  • Magnolia
  • Styrax
  • Viburnum

This list is intended as a general guideline. There are always exceptions to the rule as to when to prune, such as a barberry that is so large it’s hazardous to walk nearby. In this situation, prune it immediately. You may miss a spring flower display, but you will eliminate the overgrown thorny branches. New growth will begin in spring and foliage will look great for the summer.

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