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Pruning is fun and other basics you need to know

Give me some good loppers and a pruning saw, and I am a happy woman. Pruning is my favorite garden chore. I don't have to do it very often, and the results are both immediate and long term. Limbing up, shaping, and removing dead branches can all have a positive impact on a garden. Proper pruning can make a plant more attractive and healthier, promoting growth and improving the quality of stems, flowers, and fruit. Kolkwitzia amabilis, known as beauty bush, and a 'waterfall' Japanese maple, both benefit from judicious pruning.

I prune the lower branches of trees to allow easy walking along the garden paths.However, improper pruning can deform a plant and, in some cases can lead to a plant's decline. A lot of people are afraid to prune their shrubs and trees, and it's no wonder suburbia is half hidden by overgrown, misshapen plants. 

Entire books have been written on pruning guidelines and techniques, but it is easy to remember these five basics:

1. Plant the right plant in the right place. That means a shrub that is destined to grow ten foot tall should not be planted three feet from your living room window, unless it grows slowly and you don't mind pruning it regularly. Yet, why do that, when there are many other, more appropriate plants that won't cover your windows and send their roots snaking under your foundation?

2. You can prune dead wood anytime. Otherwise, it's best to prune spring flowering plants immediately after they have bloomed. Prune summer flowering plants in late winter or very early spring. If you prune at the wrong time, you might not harm the plant, but you will reduce the next season's blooms. Also remember if you prune in late autumn, you could stimulate new growth just in time for frost. 

3. To maintain a plant's natural appearance, cut in layers. Most of the time it's best to let the plant keep its identity. That means don't saw straight across the top of the plant. That is ugly. Cut some from lower, middle, and top branches, and make your cuts just above buds that point outward.

4. Hedges should be trimmed so that the top is a bit narrower than the bottom, so that sunlight reaches the lower part of the plant. Otherwise, the bottom branches will loose their leaves. 

5. Use good quality, sharp tools. Dip in a 1:10 bleach solution between plants to keep from spreading disease.

6. This one is controversial, so I didn't include it in the five basics, but I think it's important to remember. Pruning is fun. It's creative. Your plants will love you for it.

While I like to think I have complete artistic control over my garden, regarding pruning I have had to compromise. My husband and I have a difference of opinion about the yaupon holly shrubs out front. I like a natural shape, but he likes the little ball look. We have discussed this for years, but he is a man who loves his power hedge trimmer. So for now my garden has a lot of these proper balls. Besides, Lou cheerfully hauls off the great piles of clippings and branches I make when I am pruning, so he deserves something for that.This is a view through the rose arch, taken in November.


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Reader Comments (14)

Hi Deb,
I love pruning too! There is just something so basic about doing this and seeing the results. I am always preaching against pruning flowering shrubs into balls, but sometimes I feel it is a losing battle. Your pruning tips are well written and I am sure many gardeners will find them very helpful.

December 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNoelle (azplantlady)

I love pruning too! I recently limbed up some of my oak trees in the front yard so I can mow under them without the threat of decapitiation. I also have a flower bed between them that will now get more sun. The shape of the trees was immediately improved, so that's another bonus.

I'm headed off to the wooded area behind the house to cut down and limb up some other trees as soon as I get my hands on a chainsaw...


December 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Deb, I'm one of those people who has always been intimidated by pruning. Thank you for clarifying with these simple rules; they definitely help.

December 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJean

Hi everyone, and thanks for stopping by.

Noelle, regarding those balls, I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. What someone else may think is neat and clean, I may think is tortured. What I think is natural, someone else may think is messy!

Jennifer, good luck with the chain saw! And I hope your flower bed does well with its new sunny disposition.

Jean, I do hope you grow to enjoy pruning as I have. I am pleased if my simple rules help. -Deborah

December 9, 2009 | Registered CommenterDeborah Elliott

You exhibit great wisdom and restraint not to come between a man and his power hedge trimming equipment. The trimmed Holly gives it a more formal and quite sophisticated appeal . I like it. Hey Lou, I got your back man !

December 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersanddune

I love pruning too! I like to keep plants looking as natural as possible as well, sometimes I get a little carried away though. There's something therapeutic about pruning. Great and informative post!

December 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Hi Deb, what a wonderful space you have there, it looks so perfectly proportioned, so perfectly pruned! As for the little yaupon balls, well marraige is all about compromise. If they were boxwoods, it would be more understandable. But aren't you missing the flowers and berries with that style of pruning? Maybe he could be offered a non berrying shrub as a sacrifice to the hollies? :-)


December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

Deb, thank you! I have a deal for you: I'll take you to that magical forest to see Mr. Green Thumb, and you prune my trees and shrubs! I am not a good with pruning. I never even heard about #4. Your post is very useful for me. Thank you! Your last picture is very inspiring. The color palette is unbelievably beautiful!

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

Hello Deborah! How lovely finding your blog. Beautiful photos of a beautiful garden, and sensible advice. I'll definitely be coming around often! In fact your pruning advice comes at just the right time. I've come in from a late afternoon walk in the arboritum, planted 11 years ago and growing like mad in this sunny but humid summer. I was looking at how solid things have become. Beautiful, but in need of serious and selective thinning, which will include the removal of entire trees and shrubs and the cutting back of a great many others. Also some pruning of lower branches to open vistas and especially to create the negative spaces that show so beautifully in your second photo. So reading about pruning as fun when I was feeling daunted by the prospect was ideal. By the way I enjoy the odd ball among more natural looking planting. In fact I love it. And have too little of it, mainly because I don't do sufficient pruning...

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJack Holloway

I enjoyed your post because I can relate...i love to prune. I am in a world of my own when I start pruning. Like you said it is immediate results.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Hi - I also love to prune - I just posted this afternoon on pruning a hydrangea - It's something to do when the sunny day of winter break. Good post - G

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGloria Bonde

Hey Deb, I enjoyed reading your post because I just got a great pair of Felco Pruners. I looked all over and found those to be the most loved brand so we now carry them at Garden Shoes Online. I can see why they are favored by many. Your post came at a great time because I am so excited to have them.....I have prunin on my mind. Thanks!

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa

Your garden has such a romantic natural feeling. The colors and forms in every wonderful photo are stunning. Lovely! You offer great advice as well. Keeping my tools sharp is so hard with all the pruning I must do and have done... but I know too well how important it is. Great post and I am glad your comment brought me to your world... to the warm south. Here it is around 14 degrees! A treat to visit you. Carol

December 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

I have a huge beauty bush but I never knew the proper way to prune it. I finally dived in after it bloomed this year and worked on it. I have no idea if I helped matters but I guess I will know next spring.

I've been looking for the Japanese maple "Waterfall" and it is very hard to find around here.

December 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip

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