A GROWING CONCERN: Not too soon for you to prune

A WEEK FROM tomorrow is already March 1.

Now, I’m not quite sure about this lion and lamb thing, but I do know it’s the first day of late winter. And if you don’t prune back a lot of your plants, like the severe shearing of a lamb, they will come at you like hordes of pregnant rabbits.

Unfortunately this cute introduction doesn’t teach you anything. Go grab a cup of coffee, get out paper and pen, hold a mental image of your yard and let’s attend Pruning 101.

The natural form of a plant is usually desired, especially when you pick the right plant for the right spot, whereas that plant’s shape should have been part of your decision as to what species goes where.

Pruning involves trimming and cutting unwanted or unhealthy growth.

One prunes this growth to improve the health, vigor, shape and/or production of the plant.

Pruning is done for one or more of the following reasons:

1. To increase the production of roots and thus prevent dieback of branch tips.

2. To remove dead, dying or injured plant parts (very important to do any time these conditions are present).

3. To provide more light or air (pruning out dense inner growth or thinning is also a year round job), which produces stronger growth and in fruit trees, more fruit.

4. To check growth of plants where their natural habitat conflicts with the surroundings. One prunes to keep the plant within the space because their mature size is too large for the surroundings.

5. Encourage fruit, flower or foliage production. Certain cuts in pruning stimulate growth or actually produce larger fruit and more flowers.

6. To alter form or size of the plant for design purposes. The art of bonsai, sculptured plants or covered archways along with espaliered fruit trees are prime examples of this type of pruning.

7. To take plants that suffer from neglect, disease or poor growth. Hard pruning is a general stimulant use to rehabilitate these plants.

OK, those are the reasons one prunes.

Now, the big question is when does one prune?

This is a far more difficult list so let’s move to the most important fact in pruning.

Pruning is not some secret ritual or mysterious process.

Pruning is the most basic gardening chore.

Above all, one must understand the growth and bloom (could be colored foliage) along with the habit of the individual plant. The key is to know your plant!

Ornamental plants that bloom are best pruned during or immediately after flowering production. Remember, most blooming plants reset next year’s buds within months of flowering. This means rhododendrons, camellias, lilacs and other similar plants. Cutting now remove this year’s flowers.

Keeping these plants as examples, shaping can be done at any time. If your lilac has a stem rubbing against the house, prune it when it finally irritates you enough for action.

Suckers, water sprouts, deadwood or branches that cross over from one side of the plant to the other can and should be removed any time of the year.

Winter is primetime for heavy pruning of large branches.

The reasons are many — insects are dead, dormant or in an early stage of non-mobile development and thus large cuts do not open the plants directly to these bugs. On the same note, diseases are generally less abundant and spread at a far slower pace in winter.

Fruit trees need to be pruned late enough in the winter to avoid stimulating growth and buds for frost damage, but early enough to direct energy to production and not wasted on leafy growth. That is now!

Stimulating prunes are timed to spring and involves selecting the right spot to prune to encourage the healthiest branches to grow.

This is done generally 2 weeks (approximate time for plant to recover from the shock of the prune) before you believe the spring weather will arrive. I believe this year, that time is now.

Actually, if you live within ½ mile of the water, it was two weeks ago.

If you live above 1,000 feet, it is after the snow is totally gone.

Fall is a great time to thin plants as their growth has built up all growing season and the following spring energy is totally directed to desired branches and stems.

There are numerous technicalities in pruning, and the space available for this column will thus force a Pruning 202 course shortly.

I do want, however, to point out two last important pruning fine points.

You and your pruners control the shape of the plant.

The direction of the last node (a bump on the branch where a leaf had been or a branch is) left by your cut will be the direction the plant grows — such as an apple cut at a branch bending down for easy picking. Or a shrub against the house, cut where the last node or branch points away from the house.

In roses, prune the node facing outward from the plant.

You will know you are pruning correctly when every one of the 1,273 single cuts made in a day was with thought and for a deliberate result that you chose.

Pruning stimulates regardless of the time of year.

If the plant pruned is not on a current nutrient program, fertilize it. Do that now!

In the summer, pruning can be a major shock, so water the heck out of them.

All right, the bell is ringing.

Your assignment is to sharpen those tools of destruction.

Leave your perennials alone and make your list of plants to prune.

It is time to begin spring pruning and stimulation — your work is due by March 15. Elevation and weather will excuse tardiness … and 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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