A GROWING CONCERN: Getting to the root of pruning

SINCE JANUARY IS almost over, and it starts the year off with that extra 31st day, how about I sneak in one more “extra” article about pruning?

I do this in response to a client who was asking about “bare root” plants. Now is the time to plant bare root items or transplant woody plants because of our unique and mild climate patterns.

She then wondered whether now is the time to prune or cut away large roots, because she has a massive evergreen with a root protruding from it that will soon destroy her walkway.

Root pruning

Since I was planning to write a series of articles, starting this week, on pruning (because we are now entering an absolute optimum time for pruning) let’s start with root pruning.

Root pruning is exactly what it’s name implies — pruning of a root system. It is done for a variety of reasons. All are extremely beneficial to the plant, so let’s explore each one.

Errant growth

As in most types of pruning, the removing of errant, wayward, in your face or out of shape growth is a norm.

In root pruning, one often can stop or hinder root growth into an area, off the sidewalk or away from a pond by pruning (severing) the roots with a shovel.

By cutting off the roots a foot or more (many times 2, 3 or 4 feet), a gardener can keep roots out of unwanted areas.

It is critical to do this type of pruning during the winter, especially if you are cutting roots more than ½ to 1 inch in diameter.

Thrust a sharpened shovel as deep into the ground as you can in an unbroken line, and if you fear a recurrence, do so again in June and at the end of September. But perform the first cut at this time of year only.

If you have a large root already established, you can remove that root at the tree’s base, but do so only now when it is almost dormant and is plenty wet, the sun and temperatures are low, and it is months before spring growth.

If at all possible, prune away any limbs, crossover branches and thick growth to compensate for the root loss.

Less root but also fewer leaves and branches to nourish means the plant will be less stressed.

Fertilize anytime you prune because all pruning is stimulating, so bring on the food to lessen stress.

Induce flowering

Many times on items such as old vines, old orchard trees, lilacs, even old roses, a root prune stimulates flower production.

Old orchard trees and vines bloom and produce poorly if they age and are taken care of poorly.

A root prune brings on flowers.

With that same sharpened and oiled shovel (oil on the metal prevents clay and silt from sticking to the tool), deeply make a continuous line just inches outside the drip line, which is the edge of foliage.

Trench shovel easier

I like to use a sturdy trench shovel which is a narrow, long bladed shovel because it both penetrates deeply and the narrow blade is easier to kick downward into the soil.

With this type of pruning, fertilize at the outline with a nutrient appropriate for the type of plant, and prune this way in February.

Root prune at planting

I bet most of us know about roughing up roots when a potted item is root bound before it’s planting.

Many plants that have been in pots for years become root bound, and running scissors or another bladed tool up and down to break up the roots ball helps untangle the root mob.

Make it a clean cut. Torn or tattered roots are detrimental as well, so when you are transplanting or dealing with bare root items, make sure to have clean cuts.

I always prune on the roots of bare root plants to further stimulate them.

So once again, now is the time to prune, especially in your orchard, and since now is also the time to plant many woody and perennial plants.

Next week’s article will talk about planting and digging those holes.

Until then … 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 news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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