Shear joy of pruning PDF Print E-mail
Written by AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension   
Monday, April 02, 2007

It's not easy to teach someone how to prune, especially without a shrub right in front of us to use as an example. I've written about pruning before but I find it takes lots of reading, thinking and practicing to really get the hang of it.
Today, rather than trying to give an overview of pruning, I'll focus in on one aspect. If you're feeling daunted by where to begin, try these few steps this year and see how your plants respond. I've gained confidence in my own pruning abilities as I've watched my plants react to and survive my various attempts!

When to Prune

Today I'm going to talk about just one approach to pruning to help you get started. Yes, by pruning spring flowering shrubs now before they leaf out, you will be removing some of this year's flower show. But I find I can see so much better what I'm trying to do without all those leaves in the way. Also, it's easier for me to remove bare branches than those lush, leafy branches in June. If you really don't want to lose any flowers it's fine to prune your plants in June.
Also, by pruning now you will be invigorating your plant. Pruning in June is good for when you want to hold your plant at a certain size and not induce a lot of new growth. Hedges that are as high as you'd like are the best candidates for June pruning. But flowering plants need to be rejuvenated every few years in order to keep producing a great flower show, so pruning in April is ideal.

Look Down

Take a look at the base of your shrubs and look for those that produce a lot of shoots from the ground. Lilacs, highbush cranberries and all the viburnums, forsythia, spirea, red-stemmed dogwood, mockorange and potentilla are some common examples. Compare these to a burningbush or juniper if you have them, and you'll see that those plants grow from one main stem and branch out above the ground.
Today I'm only talking about the shrubs that produce lots of stems from the ground. Once you've figured out which shrubs in your yard I'm talking about, take a closer look at them. You'll see stems of all sizes and ages. The thicker the stem, the older it usually is; but not always. Some plants send up incredibly vigorous shoots that shoot straight up, growing four feet or more in one year with no side-branching. But in general, the size indicates the age.
Look also at the bark on these stems. The older branches will look a little more funky than the younger, perhaps with some bark peeling off and maybe some holes in the stems. Yes, the tops of these older stems usually produce a lot of flowers but the span between the ground and those high-up flowers can be pretty unattractive.

The Right Tools

I'm going to have you make your cuts at the ground level, to the oldest and largest stems, so this job is going to require more than hand pruners. A folding pruning saw is ideal and a pair of lopping shears will be a big help, too.
Lopping shears are basically hand pruners with long handles for more leverage. As long as your tools are sharp and aligned so they make smooth, clean cuts, you won't hurt your plant as you practice pruning. Yes, you may take too much off one side, but just like a bad haircut, an uneven pruning job will eventually grow out! You need to be bold when you prune.

Out with the Old

Pruning is a ruthless practice; we have little compassion for the elderly here. Your main goal is to remove the oldest stems every few years to keep a fresh supply of younger, more vigorous stems coming along.
Stand back from your shrub and walk all the way around it to determine which are the oldest and funkiest stems. Take just two or three of these out, as close to the ground as you can. If your plant is quite overgrown it may take you a few years to fully achieve your goal but it's usually better to go slowly and take your time.
There are some plants such as forsythia that you can actually cut completely to the ground when they are a huge, tangled mess but I suggest you start this year by removing just a few main stems from each shrub.
The general rule is to not remove more than one-third of the plant at a time. Plants can easily cope with losing that much and it may take a couple of years of removing that much to really bring your plants back into bounds. But once you get them where you want them, you can take less out each year but on a more regular basis.
If you're uneasy about trying this type of pruning, try it on just a couple of your plants and see how they respond. I suspect that once you get started, you'll find it hard to stop. There's something very rewarding about pruning and turning an overgrown mess into a attractive plant. Grab your saw and pruners and give it a try this month.
Amy Ivy is a Executive Director with Cornell Cooperative Extension. Office phone numbers: Clinton County 561-7450, Essex County 962-4810, Franklin County 483-7403. Web site: ecgardening. E-mail questions to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it



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