Trees aren’t the only ones whose sap rises in springtime. The balmy weather we’ve been having is driving every gardener I know crazy with desire; they’re frenzied with wanting to get out, get planting, and get growing.
But before you content yourself with pruning, keep in mind that a little restraint is a good thing.
Looking at a plant that needs pruning can be daunting. The branches go everywhere and gardeners do one of two things: either they freeze at the brink of making cuts, or they chop away, never stopping to look at the results until it’s too late.
This last approach was my brother-in-law’s method when pruning overgrown upright junipers on either side of the front window. The result was breathtaking; two vertical trunks with a feathering of foliage – tufted totem poles instead of trees – was all that was left of once full-figured evergreens.
Don’t let this happen to you. Remember, pruning is not a race, and gardeners who flail about with sharp tools and no plan can expect to have amazingly awful plant shape. There is no hat big enough to cover the blunder.
Yet pruning need not be a reason for panic. Start with the easy stuff, by removing any broken or competing branches, and often the twigs needing more cuts reveal themselves. Competing branches are those that rub against one another, or block other shoots, developing wounds that disease enters. Prune one of the two rubbing branches off to allow the other to grow.
Once this is completed, stand back and look over the plant to see if these few snips have left the plant misshapen. Take time to consider what other cuts will help the plant maintain its form, or remove anything that blocks walkways, seating areas or drives.
In all, removal of up to one-third of the plant will be fine, provided the tree is young. Should it be more mature, removal of up to one-quarter of the overall plant is the limit. Large branches over two-inches in diameter shouldn’t be pruned unless there is a jolly good reason. They don’t seal well and disease could be a problem. If you must remove a larger limb, do so over several seasons by cutting back one-third of the branch each year instead of lopping them off in one fell swoop.
ALWAYS use the three-cut pruning method for removing limbs two-inches in diameter or larger to keep bark from tearing. The first cut is made about 12 inches from the trunk, sawing upwards into the bottom of the branch. Next, move out from the trunk another inch, and saw down through the branch from the top. The final cut is made at the trunk, just outside of the branch collar.
You don’t always have to take off the whole branch. You can partially prune to shape, by making the cut (called a heading cut) one-quarter inch in front of a growing bud. Choose a bud that will grow in a direction that is outward from the plant and will not cross other branches. If the plant is near a walkway, choose a bud that will grow above head height or away from the walk.
Should the entire branch need to be removed, make the cut one-quarter inch in front of the branch collar. The collar is a ridge of slightly thickened wood surrounding the junction of branch to trunk. If care is taken not to nick this collar, the wound will seal over and the tree will remain healthy. Longer stubs of more than a quarter inch will not allow the tree to seal the pruning cut, looking nubby and unsightly on the tree.