A GROWING CONCERN: Evergreen advice for conifer pruning

WELL, HERE WE are already — it’s November!

Hopefully, we all remembered to turn our clocks back, which means tonight it is dark at 5 p.m.

This also means some of our attention turns to the holidays and the decorations.

Next week we will discuss the “nuts and bolts” of holiday lights and floral displays. For today, let us learn how pruning your evergreens right now is both ideal and so seasonal. So here we go.

In the pruning world there are only two techniques: Heading cuts, which sever across a plant-part just above a node and promote new and numerous growths, and thinning cuts, which sever a plant’s stem or branch exactly at the point of origin and thus stops growth there — promoting remaining tips to grow more vigorously.

An understanding of these two techniques is vital because heading cuts on conifers can be devastating.

Ideal pruning time

Remember, November is at ideal time to prune your softwood evergreens, along with the fact that those trimmings are very valuable in the autumn/winter garden — especially for seasonal holiday displays.

Let’s get back to how devastating heading cuts can be to your evergreens.

The problem with heading cuts in relationship to your conifers is twofold.

First, when you tip evergreens (heading tips performed on the growing tips of evergreen branches) they become very dense.

It is exactly how Christmas trees are produced. But Christmas trees are cut down and thrown away very young in their lives, which is good because tipping your evergreens not only causes them to become very dense, but these new tips will compete to become the new terminal tip (growth tip) of that main branch or side branch. This in turn will create a weird, Medusa-headed growth pattern.

Down the road, this will become a constant pruning challenge.

Second (as if the first is not bad enough), heading-off deep into the plants growth (that growth is the woody brown, harder and older than 18- to 24-months) most often will result in no new growth at all.

In fact, even if needles and small interior branches are present, they will die off in the next 2 years (think dead plant walking).

Established ugliness

This is why that house you see with the dead, ugly, brown evergreens that they pruned back hard out of the driveway and back from the sidewalk is every bit as poor-looking today as it was five years ago when they pruned it hard, heading-off branches deep into established wood.

Most all evergreens simply will not branch off old wood when headed-off.

Thinning cuts are the name of the game as far as evergreens are concerned.

Actually, the best pruning of evergreens is planting them far enough away from the house, driveway, sidewalk or garage that you only have to shape, prune and deadwood.

Dead-wooding, by the way, is a perfect way to greatly improve the look of your conifers.

At any time of year, you can deadwood your trees — all of your trees.

It is an easy process that simply involves removing, with mostly thinning cuts, all dead or dying plant parts usually found deep inside the plant along the trunk or in close proximity to it.

Thin it back

Dead-wooding dramatically improves the look of the plant as well as its health, opening it up to both air and light.

If junipers or heather are invading the driveway, pick up the tip and thin it back at a fork of the plant’s growth.

That will remove the offending length that is in an improper place, but do so with thinning cuts only.

If you must head-off — and several times on an evergreen pruning job, you must — execute heading cuts, but remember the steadfast rule: All heading cuts beget future thinning cuts because of the multitude of new growth that radiates from that prune.

All heading cuts, on all plants, beget future thinning cuts or they will suffer the wrath of a Medusa-headed end growth.

Do not forget as well, that lower branches thinned off the trunk, or branches thinned out of a thicket of branches, and cut off at the trunk are all advantageous thinning cuts as far as evergreens are concerned.

Finally, next week, we will learn what to do and how to use all those thinned-out evergreen branches (headed off ones, too, but rarely), so you might want to get nice loppers.

Start to plan for a great light display to take advantage of our new found darkness.

But above all else … stay well all.


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] (subject line: Andrew May).

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