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Parameters of Proper Pruning

Like a surgeon, cutting for the very first time. How to do it right.

Pruning a tree or shrub is a nerve-wracking experience if you're not sure of yourself. You're trying to act like a surgeon but afraid you'll end up as an ax murderer. Are you cutting off too much? Are you cutting at the right place or at the right time? Fortunately, basic pruning is not too complicated and the techniques can be boiled down to a few pointers. >From there, it's up to you to follow specific information from your nursery or manual for individual plants.

The first question to ask is why. There are lots of reasons to prune.� Perhaps a shrub is overgrowing a window. Controlling growth is a very common goal. But you can use pruning to enhance the growth of plants, as well, to maximize flowering, improve plant health, or bring in more light and air, in addition to simply controlling the size or density. Once you know why you're pruning, the proper technique and time of year to prune will be easier to figure out.

Generally speaking, you'll take a different approach for deciduous shrubs and tree as opposed to coniferous, or flowering and fruiting types. Starting with trees, it's a basic No-No to prune deciduous trees in the spring or fall when the sap is running, and try to avoid cutting off the ends of branches wider than 3 inches. Cutting branches off at the ends encourages wild-looking "waterspouts" or shoots. You're better of cutting at the base of the branch or a fork for better healing. Deciduous shrubs should not be pruned while the sap is flowing either. Be sure to leave the shears inside in the late fall, or anytime within 6 weeks of frost so the plant has time to form a protective cuticle.�

Conifers can be separated into random-branching types (yellow cedars, hemlocks, junipers, etc.) and whorled types with clustered needles (pines and firs). If you just want to thin out growth or control size and density, spring or summer pruning is best for random-branching types and any time of year is okay for whorled types. Unless you want the even look of a hedge, don't cut the branches to the same, uniform length. On whorled types, you can selectively control new growth by trimming all or part of the "candles" or buds at the ends of branches. But do not do this after around July 4.

Flowering or fruiting shrubs, including deciduous or broadleaf evergreens, are pruned after they produce flowers or fruit. For summer flowering or fruiting shrubs, you'll probably want to wait as long as possible into the winter in order to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Jump right in with spring flowering shrubs, however, and prune as soon as the flowers fade to encourage new growth.

Now, here's the easy part. You can prune anytime you see dead, damaged or diseased branches. Cut them off. And light pruning is okay anytime of year, too.

Sources used to create this article include Sherry Palmer of Creekside Gardens and