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Pruning 101: The basics for success

This is a great time of year to prune most deciduous trees and shrubs so let’s cover some tips and techniques.

What is pruning? Pure and simple, it’s removing the undesirable parts of plants.  

Good pruning improves plant health. It gets rid of dead and diseased parts and improves air circulation, shape, and appearance. It can also restrict growth, stimulate flowering and fruiting, and rejuvenate older plants.  

February to early March is the ideal time to prune many trees and shrubs because they are dormant. The cuts you make will add vigor without trauma. 

You need only a few tools. Start with hand pruners to clip small twigs and branches. Add a pair of loppers to cut larger branches. For tight spots, it’s hard to beat a folding pruning saw.

No matter what tools you choose, keep them sharp and clean.

Leave to the pros – licensed tree experts or certified arborists – the pruning of large trees or work that involves climbing or cutting near power lines.   

Good pruning cuts are smooth with no ragged edges. They’re made at an angle about 1/8 to ¼-inch beyond a bud or connecting branch, so that water runs away from the cut.  

Don’t use pruning sealants which encourage disease and slow healing. Clean cuts heal themselves.

Never remove more than a third of a tree or shrub in any one year. Tackle neglected plants over several years to bring them up to snuff.  

Now you’re ready to start pruning.  

First, picture the ideal shape of your tree. You generally want a strong central leader and branches that go up and out. Keep that picture in mind as you prune. 

Next, ask yourself some questions to guide your pruning cuts.

Are there any dead or broken branches? Remove them. 

Do any branches cross? Get rid of one of the crossing branches to avoid damage from rubbing.

Are there areas where many branches are close together? Thin some out to improve air circulation and discourage disease. 

Are some branches distorted, malformed, or growing toward the trunk? Get them gone. 

Are skinny branches growing straight up from the main branches? Snip off these water sprouts.

Are branches growing from the base of the tree? Cut off these suckers. 

Do some branches have tight, narrow connections to the trunk? Remove some. Strong branches come out at wide angles and resist breakage.

Remove branches with narrow crotches (left) to lessen the chance of breakage. Photo: University of Maryland Extension 

Stop, stand back, and look at your tree or shrub often as you prune. Armed with all sorts of cutting tools, it’s easy to get carried away. And yes, I know this from experience.

Does every tree or shrub need to be pruned? No. Do most benefit from it? Yes. Are there different pruning styles for different types of plants? Yes. Fruit trees, grapevines, flowering shrubs, and evergreens all have unique needs. 

Your best pruning tool is a good book or reference sheet like this one: Pruning Trees in the Home Landscape

Don’t let pruning intimidate you. Do your research. Arm yourself with good tools. Take your time. And step back often to evaluate what you’ve done. Before you know it, you’ll be a pruning pro. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

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