In the garden

The importance of pruning
Pruning is an important part of maintaining woody plants such as trees and shrubs in your yard, and now is a good time to prune all but the early spring bloomers like azaleas, camellias and forsythia.

“You don’t want to prune off the flower buds,” said Henrico Extension Agent Karen Carter. “You wouldn’t be hurting the plant, but you would be reducing the floral display.”

Many people dread pruning, approaching it as a distasteful chore that they are unsure how to do properly. But effective pruning can pay big benefits in terms of plant health and appearance, and sometimes pruning is necessary either to control plant size or to remove safety hazards.

“Pruning doesn’t have to be complicated,” said Carter. “You just have to keep a few basic principles in mind.”

“First, choose the right plant for the right place,” she said.

“Second, do corrective pruning to take care of the 3 Ds – diseased, damaged or dead plant material.” Corrective pruning also includes removing rubbing and crossing branches and cutting back growth that is weak or spindly to encourage vigor.

The third principle: prune selectively to thin rather than top or head back plants. “It’s often easier and quicker to uniformly take a little off the top,” said Carter, “but in the long-run non-selective pruning can create more problems than it solves.”

Carter added that there can be “perfectly fine” reasons for shearing hedges and other shrubs but stressed that periodic selective pruning improves the long-term health of the plant and helps avoid the shell effect – leaves on the outside of a hedge with only bare branches on the inside.

“Keeping those basics in mind will get you a long way,” said Carter. “Probably 80%.”

“The other thing you need to consider is renewal pruning which involves taking out old stems from aggressive growers such as forsythias or spireas to improve blooming,” added Carter.

The Virginia Extension Service has several good publications online that Carter says are worth reading before starting the work, plus she recommends two others: “Basic Principles of Pruning Woody Plants” at http://www.caes.uga.edu/publications/ and “Pruning Woody Landscape Plants” at http://umaine.edu/publications/2169e.

You can also call the Henrico Master Gardener Helpline at 501-5160.

It’s also helpful to research the needs and habits of specific plants.

Choosing the proper tools for the size wood you’re attempting to cut is also important. Hand pruners with a by-pass action that cuts rather than crushes stems are recommended for wood that is less than 0.5-inch thick. Lopping shears are good up to 1.5 inches, and a pruning saw – which has different teeth from a carpentry saw – can be used for larger stems.

“Leave anything you can’t cut with a pruning saw to the professionals,” said Carter, “unless, of course, you are a
professional!”
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