6 professional pruning pointers

Pruning shrubs and trees in your garden can add elements of structure and elegance. Follow these six professional pointers for how and when to prune your garden's plants.

6 professional pruning pointers

1. Keep it natural

  • Unless you want a formal or exaggerated look, use a tree or shrub's natural framework and growth pattern.

A plant that's allowed to develop with its natural architecture will be more structurally sound than if it were trained into an unnatural shape.

2. Conifers require specific pruning techniques

Don't cut back firs, spruces, pines or other needle-leafed conifers, because they won't fill in below the pruning cut as other plants do.

  • To help a conifer develop more bushy branches, just use your fingers to pinch off half of each "candle" — a new shoot with growth buds — before it opens its needles in spring.
  • Take care not to remove the entire candle, since doing so will stop further growth of the branch.

3. Prune into a cloud

Renovate a leggy conifer by practicing Japanese "cloud" pruning to transform it into an interesting specimen.

  • Select a few well-placed branches with good foliage.
  • Remove twigs and branches along with the lower stems and prune the tops into fluffy, elliptical shapes.
  • The foliage will appear to be floating like clouds above the woody branches.

4. Forget about using wound paint

  • Instead, let the tree heal itself; it forms a natural protective layer inside cuts and wounds.

Painting over pruning cuts can encourage decay.

5. Time your pruning

  • The best time to prune most plants is at the end of their dormant season, just as new growth begins.
  • One exception is flowering shrubs. Prune those that bloom in spring after they flower. Late-flowering shrubs that bloom on wood produced the same year can be pruned before growth starts in the spring.
  • Another exception is mature fruit trees. You needn't wait until they are dormant to remove any weak, broken or diseased branches.

6. Take it easy

A gentle approach to tree pruning is better than a heavy-handed one.

  • Instead of severely pruning a tree all at once by topping back overgrown branches, shape the tree gradually over a three- to five-year period.
  • This allows for the removal of only a few branches at a time, thereby retaining the tree's outline and its energy-producing leaves.
  • In addition to stimulating the growth of numerous weak branches, topping back can expose the inner branches and trunk to scalding by the sun.
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