Spring pruning will keep your plants in shape

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Apr. 2, 2013
Spring Pruning. Contributed

It is time to get those pruning saws and loppers sharpened and take advantage of a warm April day or two to prune those trees and shrubs back into shape. Most of us have the tendency to wait until woody plants are blocking the windows, growing across walkways, or poking the person mowing the lawn before getting out the pruning tools. If plants are kept in shape on an annual basis, pruning will not be an excessively time-consuming chore.

Why prune at all? Pruning is necessary for several reasons. Typically, people prune to restrict the growth of plants, but pruning is also done to create a pleasing shape, to remove dead and diseased branches, and to increase the number or size of flowers or fruit. Pruning maintains a good balance between the stem and the crown of the plant. Overgrown shrubs can be renovated by judicious removal of stems and excessive growth.

To prune effectively, you need a good pair of hand pruners, a pruning saw, a pair of loppers, and for larger stems, a pruning saw or even a chain saw. Take time to either sharpen these tools yourself, find someone to do it for you, or purchase a new, sharp tool now to make your job easier and quicker. Plus, cuts will be cleaner and the exposed areas will have lower disease infection rates.

Before you start pruning, take a good look at the plant. Every shrub has a natural shape, one that it would assume if left alone. Decide how you want the plant to look. While some shrubs, like privets and yews, take well to shearing into geometric shapes, most plants look best if kept close to their natural growth habit. For instance, a forsythia wants to be a fountain with long branches arching up from the base, not a square! If you continuously prune it to a round or rectangular shape, you will not experience its full flowering potential.

Spring flowering shrubs should really not be pruned now. If possible, wait until after flowering. Pruning now will only lop off flower buds, which will spoil the spring bouquet. However, if you are willing to sacrifice color for convenience and have no other time to prune, go for it. Typically, summer flowering shrubs, most evergreens and fruit trees and fruiting shrubs, such as blueberries, can be pruned successfully this time of year.

The proper way to prune an overgrown shrub that sends up sprouts from the base, such as forsythia, spirea, beauty bush, mock orange and some hydrangeas, is to remove whole stems at ground level. This will thin out the shrub, allowing for better air circulation, and more sunlight.

Severely overgrown shrubs need to be thinned out by removing whole stems over a period of at least three years, removing one-third of the older canes each year and letting several new stems develop to take their place.

Single-stemmed shrubs and small trees are usually pruned to maintain a certain height, and for shape. To begin pruning, remove all dead, diseased, or broken branches. Next, remove the branches that are rubbing together, cutting back to a main stem.

To reduce plant size, pruning cuts are made back to a bud or larger branch and not just in the middle of a stem. The bud should point in the direction that you want it to grow. Make your cuts on a slant, just above the bud but in the opposite direction. To maintain the size of a plant, always prune from inside out, removing the oldest and tallest stems first. Stop every so often and view the tree or shrub from a distance to see if you are achieving the desired results.

Always remember that, in general, the natural shape of a shrub or tree is wider at the bottom than at the top. If lower leaves or needles are shaded, they will eventually perish from lack of light.

Timid pruners, remember: The plant can usually put back on all the growth that you pruned off. Plus, there are some excellent pruning books with pictures available in bookstores or online, plus a number of universities have excellent fact sheets about pruning on their websites. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes – it’s the only way some of us learn.

If you have pruning questions or other indoor or outdoor gardening topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center toll-free at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu or contact your local Cooperative Extension center.

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