Monday, February 2, 2009

To Prune or Not to Prune

It's a beautiful sunny late-winter day, the leaves are off the trees, and you have a hankering for the spring gardening season to get going already. You clean and sharpen those shears, grab the loppers and head out to the yard with a certain tree in mind. But wait-- before you begin your assault, ask yourself "why do I want to prune today?"

If the answer is "it's sunny outside" -- put those shears down and step away from the tree.

Truth is, many avid gardeners are too eager with their pruning skills and for all the wrong reasons. Late winter is a good time to prune many plants, but you should first know WHY. Are you pruning to thin the canopy, to reduce disease or defects in the tree, to increase fruit or flower production, to restrain the size of a plant... ask yourself, what is my goal?


When pruning, time of year is important for many reasons. For deciduous trees, this can be an ideal time to really assess the branch structure with all the leaves off. Most fruit trees are best pruned in late winter as they are still dormant and the pruning will enhance the year's production with increased light and air circulation, as well as ensure that sprays will be more effectively applied.

Many roses benefit from hard pruning in late winter to encourage early-spring growth of new floral shoots. Cane berries require annual removal of old and diseased canes to allow the new canes full productivity and air circulation, and it coincides with tying them in as needed. For both roses and cane berries, the cleanup of debris after pruning will also interrupt the life cycle of disease organisms that overwinter on the ground.

On the coast, other late-winter plants to consider are ornamental grasses (like pampass) and ferns. While it's not necessary to do annual shearing of either one, it will provide a cleaner look to this year's growth and remove spent flower stalks. Shearing them in February will make this a quick job, before new grass shoots or fiddleheads on the ferns start to emerge. Plus it just makes them look nice and tidy.


A good pruning book should be considered as essential a tool to the gardener as those favorite bypass shears. My all-around standby for the past decade is the Cavendish Encyclopedia of Pruning & Training (Brickell & Joyce). This exceptional book includes illustrations and photos of how to properly prune and train everything from trees to fruiting vines and shrubs, and even instructions on how to create support structures. When you are in doubt as to how, when, and why you should prune any given plant, a book like this one should be your first step before picking up the saw.

Basic pruning tools include bypass pruning shears, a set of loppers, and a small folding saw. Every gardener will find other tools useful such as hedge shears, a long-handled pruner, and of course a chainsaw. But the first 3 are the daily-use items that should be ready in a holster on your hip (ok, maybe not the loppers). Don't forget to keep a pocket sharpener handy and use it frequently to maintain your blades. Sharp tools make clean cuts and reduce plant damage. Discard the anvil-type pruner you may find in the garage; this design crushes a branch on the way through and does more harm than good. Use your bypass pruners for branches up to 1/2", the loppers up to 1" if they are up to the task, and your saw for anything larger. Technique we will cover in a later post.

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