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improperly pruned forsythia

Improperly pruned forsythia

Pruning is the one garden activity that often separates mundane plants from exquisite ones, and the one skill many gardeners do not understand and often overdo.  Mangling an overgrown plant can create an unsightly shrub or tree for a year or more or cut out the year’s flowering effect. There are many methods and reasons for pruning.  Hedges are cut for a specific shape. Fruit trees are pruned to open the structure of the tree and to produce stronger branches.

Pruning is simply cutting branches back or off to create a better-shaped plant or to encourage more fruit or flowers.  Branches may be cut off completely to direct growth of the tree or shrub, to encourage fuller plants, to open the interior of a plant for more airflow, or to create more attractive branching patterns. Practically speaking, it is probably best to buy a book on pruning to learn why certain shrubs and trees are pruned in specific ways, particularly if you want to grow grapes, or fruit trees, or create a special shaped shrub.

A few general rules govern most basic home pruning. Summer blooming shrubs should be pruned in early spring as most flower on new wood. Pruning in the fall encourages unwanted growth that hasn’t time to harden off for winter. Do not prune spring-flowering shrubs in the spring. Doing so cuts away the emerging buds before the plant flowers. Prune after they finish blooming. Do not prune maples, birch and walnuts in the spring as they bleed sap if pruned too early. Pine trees are pruned when the spring growth appears by simply snipping the new growth, or candle, back by half.

The important part is to know where to make a cut.  For cutting off a branch it is just above the collar at the base of the branch, or at the slight swelling where the branch emerges from another branch. Leaving the collar allows natural growth to heal the cut.  When you only want to cut back a branch, it is important to cut just above a bud at a 45-degree in a direction away from the bud.  This lets rainwater drain away from the bud. Since new growth emerges from the bud, too much wood left above the bud will die and might allow disease or insects to enter the plant.prune above bud

Dead or diseased wood and twigs can be cut out at any time of year. Diseased parts should be cut out well below the diseased area.  With branches that rub or cross each other interfering with growth, one branch should be cut out. Branches that grow into the shrub or tree should be cut out.  Twigs that grow straight up on fruit tree branches are called water shoots, and twigs that grow up from the base of the tree are suckers. These should be cut out.

An amazing assortment of pruning equipment is available from stores or online, from hand pruners to power shears and saws. You don’t need every piece, but for safety, you have to know how to use them and keep them clean. Dirty equipment can spread disease from plant to plant.  In some cases where plants are susceptible to diseases like fire blight, disinfecting cutting blades after each cut is recommend.

Pruning isn’t that hard, and once you know the why and how. It can become one of the pleasurable tasks of gardening.

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