Getting Ready for Spring by Pruning

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Hi again! We’re back from the winter holidays and so excited about all our new offerings. We have a houseplant club now, plus we’re just about to start a new season of Root Camp, our package of gardening classes at discounted prices that start this Saturday. One of the classes is about spring pruning, an important way to keep your garden healthy and something that people often struggle with.

Here are some basics, but if you really want to master the art of pruning, make sure to attend our pruning class on March 7 (more on that below).

Pruning helps maintain the health of your tree or shrub when you remove diseased or dead branches, or ones that are growing into one another. It can also help increase the yield of flowers or fruit by taking energy away from unneeded foliage. Last but not least, pruning is a safety precaution by removing branches that are cracked or threatening to fall.

Late winter and early spring are the perfect time for pruning because the plants are dormant, meaning that wounds will heal faster. For deciduous plants, there’s the added benefit that it’s easier to see what you are doing because the trees are bare. However, if you have a spring blooming tree or shrub, you should ideally prune them before they bud or else after blooming is finished.

One important rule of all types of pruning is this: never prune more than one third of the plant. Prune more than that and you run the risk of damaging the plant or at least stunting its growth. 

Types of Pruning Cuts for Deciduous Plants

Because many kinds of pruning cuts are made near a growth bud, you have to know how your plants grow in order to determine where to cut. There are three types: (1) a terminal bud grows at the tip of a shoot; (2) a lateral bud grows alongside the shoot; and (3) a latent bud lies dormant beneath the bark. If a branch breaks or is cut off near it, it may develop into a new shoot.

Once you determine the type, you can choose one of these four pruning cuts to keep it healthy.

  • Thinning – This is when you remove an entire branch or stem, taking it back to its point of origin or to a juncture with another branch. These cuts eliminate competing or old stems, reduce overall size, and open up a plant’s structure.
  • Heading – Heading cuts remove just part of a stem or branch – not the whole thing. Such cuts can be made back to a bud or to a twig and it stimulates the growth of lateral buds just below the cut. 
  • Shearing – Clipping a plant’s outer foliage to create an even surface (like with hedges or a topiary). It’s kind of an indiscriminate form of heading, because it doesn’t involve precise cutting just above a growing point.
  • Pinching – This is the simplest of pruning cuts. Using your thumb and forefinger or a pair of hand shears, you nip off the tips of new growth, removing the terminal bud. This stops the shoot from growing longer and stimulates branching. Pinching is used primarily on annuals and perennials to make them bushy and encourage the production of more flowers.

What to Do with Conifers

Part of the allure of evergreens is that they are usually low-maintenance plants. A little periodic pruning, however, can keep your conifers healthy and looking their best. When thinking about pruning conifers – or any plant for that matter – it’s good to remember the old adage, “measure twice and cut once.” In the case of conifers, it’s “think twice and prune once.” 

Here’s the really important thing to remember: there is no place for “recreational pruning” of conifers because they don’t replace growth like other trees and shrubs; pruning is always done for a particular purpose, like keeping a particular look, removing dead or diseased branches or controlling the size if they are threatening to grow into other plants or buildings.

Want to learn more about spring pruning? Mick Henry of Mick’s Tree Services is sharing his expert advice on March 7 at Warner’s. The class is part of our Root Camp series and you can learn more about it here.  

Happy Gardening!