No gardening activity seems to instill as much trepidation in a novice gardener as pruning. While an improperly administrated pruning job can make your plants appear rather odd looking, unless you did something really drastic, any mistakes will eventually get covered by new growth. This is not to say that the job of pruning should be taken lightly. Indeed, a few well-placed cuts can do much to enhance your plant’s appearance and health.

Not all plants require the same degree of pruning. Very young ornamental plants and shade trees usually just need a judicious cut here and there to promote structural soundness. Basically, you are just looking to remove dead, damaged or rubbing wood. Branches growing into another plant or your pathway may also need some trimming or removal.

Larger trees may need a storm damaged limb occasionally removed, or perhaps a few lower branches trimmed to increase light to plantings below. Unless you are skilled in tree limb removal, your best bet is to call in a professional. If you decide to remove a branch or two yourself, keep in mind this is a several step process. The final cut should leave the branch collar undisturbed to promote quicker healing. Look for wrinkled rings of bark around the base of the branch where it attaches to the tree trunk. This is the branch collar. Most books on pruning do a good job illustrating it as well as showing you in diagram format how to make a proper cut.

As you might imagine, different types of shrubs require somewhat different pruning techniques although the final goal is similar in most cases. One generally prunes to control a plant’s size, improve its shape, remove unhealthy branches, and to increase light and air penetration into the canopy.

Late winter through early spring is a good time to prune most shrubs. Since there are no leaves on deciduous plants, the branch framework is obvious making it clearer where to place your cuts. As a general rule of thumb, evergreens, fruit bearing plants and summer blooming deciduous shrubs like rose of Sharon are pruned in now. Spring blooming shrubs like lilacs, forsythia and mock oranges are usually pruned after they bloom. They can be pruned now but realize you will be cutting off flower buds as well.

Make cuts to evergreens below a shoot. Photo by dmp2021

Before beginning, take a step back and observe the plant’s natural growth tendencies. Plants usually look and perform better when allowed to take on their natural forms. Forsythias, for example, want to be flowing fountains, the rose of Sharon tends to resemble an upright, half-opened fan, and many spireas grow somewhat globular.

Forsythias would rather be fountain shaped than square. Photo by dmp2019.

Some shrubs like privets and yews do respond better to repetitive shearing than others which is why they are often chosen for formal hedges. When purchasing new plants for your yard, you should consider their mature size and shape. While pruning can keep them in check to some extent, it does have its limits. Buy a rhododendron species that matures at four feet if it is to grow under a window rather than continuously fight with one that has lofty goals of ten to twelve feet in mind!

It’s a good idea to place plants at a proper distance from buildings rather than prune their backsides straight. Photo by dmp 2021.

Speaking of rhododendrons, for the most part, these and other broadleaved evergreens do not require heavy pruning. Just shape them lightly and pinch the growing tips if you want them to branch out more. Generally, these are not pruned until after flowering but don’t hesitate bringing in a few branches to force in early April.

Rejuvenate overgrown shrubs that have multiple stems by cutting out about one-third of the older stems at ground level. Repeat this procedure for the next two years allowing several younger stems to take their place. This works well with older lilacs as well as shrubs grown for their colorful young stems such as the red or yellow twig dogwoods.

Remove old brown stems from red or other colored stemmed dogwoods to encourage new colorful growth. Photo by dmp2018.

For shrubs that just need to be shaped, prune out the dead wood, rubbing branches and weak stems first. Then just head back or remove some to the branch tips to shape. Always use sharp pruning tools, make an angled cut to an outside bud and remember, mistakes will regrow!

Dawn P.