Gardening Basics

When and How to Prune Trees and Shrubs

By Amy Grisak

Another pruning method is known as the central-leader system. It allows the tree to grow in a more natural shape while providing plenty of strong branches for heavy production. When training a fruit tree in central-leader fashion, keep in mind you are creating whorls with lateral branches stepping up the main trunk. A bit confused? Picture a spiral staircase. The first branch starts at approximately 24 inches from the ground, with the next lateral branch roughly 6 to 8 inches above, and away, from the first one. Always keep in mind that you’ll want light to reach the lower branches. Continue this pattern the entire way up the tree to where you might end up with 4-8 branches.

Regardless of method, you can safely cut up to 30 percent of the tree overall. It’s perfectly acceptable to trim severely, but be sure to leave the flower buds. If cut, fruit production will be severely limited.

For larger trees that haven’t been pruned for a long time, it might take several years to bring them into shape. Remove any errant twigs or branches, including those that grow straight up and cross-over, just as suggested with young trees. Next, cut-out branches as necessary to work towards the desired form. This might mean removing only one or two large branches the first year. Your patience will be rewarded with a much healthier tree in the end.

Careful Pruning Results in Bumper Crops – Photo by Amy Grisak


When to prune lilacs and spring flowering shrubs

It might be tempting to trim spring flowering bushes before the season begins. But, by doing so, you will reduce, if not eliminate, this season’s blooms. Instead, wait until they bloom, then remove the spent flowers just below the flowerhead. Don’t forget to remove any errant twigs and branches. Doing it in spring gives the plant the rest of the year to grow new flower buds. By next season you will have a shapelier shrub and one loaded with blooms.

Lilacs, in particular, benefit from annual pruning to thwart their tendency to overgrow and become less productive. Cut out the shoots at the base of the shrubs every year. Lilacs are well known to send suckers everywhere, but they typically do not improve overall health or flower production. Also, remove any particularly old or misshapen branches. These might be in the center of the bush and could be challenging to reach, even with a small saw, but opening up the center aids air circulation. This is also a good time to cut back any branches that are in the way of either a pathway or view. You can cut the branch as far back as needed, although be aware no flowers will bloom on it for at least a season.

Summer shrub maintenance

Spring is the best time to shape summer blooming shrubs such as Spirea, because they bloom on the new growth. Remove any diseased or broken branches, then begin trimming Individual branches to fit your desired form. If the shrub is at an acceptable size where you really don’t want to grow larger, simply trim branches to the first set of leaf buds. That will encourage the formation of new blossoms.

Harsh cuts: rejuvenating pruning

There are some years when a gentle trim is not going to do the trick. Overgrown shrubs are not productive, or beautiful, and can only worsen as overgrowth promotes disease and damage. In this situation, first remove anything that is dead as close to the ground, as possible, then cut the rest of the shrub to within 8-10 inches of the soil level. Of course, there will be no blooms after this type of pruning, but it will be well worth it in the long run.

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