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Winter Pruning

The first thing that everyone should know about pruning is that much like a bad haircut a botched pruning job will grow out eventually.  It’s unlikely that a person will kill a plant with poor pruning.  It may look really bad for a while, but it won’t die.

The chances of getting the job done right are improved if you use good, sharp tools, make a clean cut and consider the growth habit of the plant. And you can’t go wrong by just removing dead wood, crisscrossing branches and by limiting the removal to 1/3 of the plant’s size.

Why Prune?

The most obvious reasons to prune are to reduce the size of a plant, maintain a plant’s shape or improve its appearance.  Pruning to remove dead and diseased wood or thin out the center branches will also help keep a plant healthy.  For instances, shrub roses or hydrangeas that have grown too dense benefit from the removal of interior branches to open up air circulation; good air circulation helps keep diseases in check.

Why Prune in Late Winter

P. Allen Smith Shearing an Evergreen HedgePruning in late winter when many shrubs and trees are dormant invigorates the plants for abundant growth in spring; the wounds are exposed for a limited amount of time before the growing cycle begins; and finally, it’s just easier to see what needs to be pruned after the leaves have dropped.

When is Late Winter?

In my mid-South (zone 7) garden late winter is February.  The garden is still dormant but the spring thaw will begin within a month to 6 weeks.  The job should be handled before new spring growth begins, but after the threat of severe cold has passed.

What to Prune in Late Winter

Here is a short list of plants that appreciate a good trim in late winter.

Summer Flowering Trees – Ornamental trees that bloom in summer such as Crape Myrtles, Vitex, Smoke Tree, Rose of Sharon.

Hydrangea paniculata and H. arborescens – Unlike their cousin H. macrophylla, these two hydrangeas bloom on new wood so cut them back hard to promote growth and flowers.  H. paniculata can be cut back to two buds above the base of the flower stem. Prune H. arborescens back to varying heights of 1 to 3 feet from the ground.

Fruit Trees – Fruit trees flower on growth from the previous season, but pruning should be done when the tree is dormant, so there will be some flower and fruit loss.  The good news is that pruning promotes vigorous growth and larger, better tasting fruits.  Each type of fruit tree has some special requirements so do some research before you begin cutting.

Roses – Hybrid tea, old-fashioned and climbing roses should be pruned right before the leaf buds break or if you live in a northern region, pruning should be done when you remove winter protection.

What NOT to Prune in Late Winter

Not all plants should be cut back in winter.  This is a list of plants that prefer to have their haircuts in late spring or summer.

Spring Flowering Shrubs – Forsythia, quince, azaleas, Bridal wreath spirea and other shrubs that bloom in spring should be pruned immediately after they flower.

Spring Flowering Trees – Lilacs, ornamental fruit trees and

Hydrangea macrophylla – Old-fashioned, pompon hydrangeas set bloom buds on the previous year’s growth.  It’s safe to remove faded flowers and dead branches.

Once Blooming Roses – Old-fashioned roses that only flower once each growing season, such as Damasks and Mosses bloom on old wood and should be pruned in the summer after they have flowered.

Gardenias – These should be pruned immediately after they bloom.

Bleeding Trees – Maples, birches, dogwoods, walnuts and elms produce copious amounts of sap when they are pruned in late winter.  Pruning won’t hurt the trees, but it will be less messy if you wait until summer.

Essential Tools

Pruning Stem SizesGoing back to the hair cut analogy, it is safe to assume that most of us wouldn’t want to have our hair cut with a pair of rusty pinking shears.  The same is true of pruning.  The best results come from using sharp, clean tools that are suited for the task.  Here is a list of pruning essentials.

Sharp pocket knife is great for making small cuts as needed.

Hedge shears are designed to cut small twigs or shrubs, but not anything much larger than the size of a pencil.  They are a must for broadleaf evergreens such as boxwoods, hollies and yews.

By-pass pruners are suited good for cuts about the size a pencil and can be used for perennials and shrubs with thin stems like roses or azaleas.

Loppers are a tool for making big bites when you need to get some leverage.  They are best for using on dead wood because they tend to crush rather than cut.  This crushing action can damage living cells in a branch, which could cause a longer healing time for the tree or shrub.

Saws are also ideal for large branches and can be used for cutting living wood.  The more teeth on the saw the finer the cut and the easier the healing process will be on the plant.

Pole saws and pole pruners are handy for reaching into large shrubs or for working overhead.

Good to Know:  When to Call in a Professional.

If you can’t reach a limb from the ground with a pole pruner, it’s time to call a pro.  This also applies if the limbs are heavier than you can manage or if the tree is near power lines.

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Evergreen Hedge Pruning

I have an evergreen hedge that runs the length of my property. It is beginning to grow too large. When and how should I prune it?

Things really begin to pick up in the garden in late winter and early spring, so to stay ahead of the workload, it is a good idea to get as many of the big projects out of the way as soon as possible, like pruning evergreen hedges.

The first thing you’ll want to do is start with a pair of sharp shears so that when you prune the plant you don’t leave any ragged edges on the stems. The great thing about pruning evergreens is that the more you prune them, the thicker they become.

How you make the cut depends on whether the hedge is a broad-leafed evergreen like boxwood or a needle type evergreen, such as Leyland cypress.

Broad-leafed evergreens have dormant buds on their stems down close to the trunk. So when you cut back a broad-leafed evergreen, the dormant buds are activated.

However, you never want to cut a needle type evergreen all the way back to the trunk or to a bare stem because they can’t recover. All of their dormant buds are in the green foliage.

One of the reasons it is wise to prune this time of year is that it’s just before the plant flushes new growth, so you are helping the plant be more efficient with its energy.

Now when pruning hedges, shear them on a slight bevel so that the bottom sticks out a little further than the top. Allowing the top to grow out too much shades out all of the light and causes the bottom of the hedge to become leggy. You can make the job easier by using a string and a line level as a guide to keep it even across the top.

By shaping up your hedges and not let them get out of control, you’ll find it doesn’t take much time to keep them looking great.

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Mark Chisholm on Large Tree Pruning Safety

There is no plant quite as majestic as a tree. Not only do they provide some of the basic necessities such as clean air and shelter, the landscape would be barren without their green canopies and regal trunks. Trees also benefit homeowners by improving the energy efficiency of their homes. According to some studies, increasing the resale value of the property between 7 to 20 percent. So it just makes sense to take care of our trees. When it comes to mature trees not much maintenance is required, but if there are signs of trouble it is important to call in a certified arborist to diagnose a problem before it gets out of hand. Beyond a basic tree pruning service, a good arborist will be able to help you with tree pruning, preventive maintenance, diagnosis and treatment of diseases, insects, and general health issues. If you are thinking of adding trees to your garden, a certified arborist can help you with selection, planting and care.

There are seven post oaks at the Garden Home Retreat that I call the "Seven Sisters" and they are the pride of the landscape. When I began the Garden Home Retreat project, one of my first tasks was finding a certified arborist to take a look at the Sisters.

One of the Seven Sisters
Finding an arborist is somewhat like selecting a new doctor. It’s always good to contact one with a solid reputation. During the Tour des Trees cycling event, I met a lot of arborists and they all recommended Mark Chisholm, a third generation arborist and tree climbing champion. Mark has won many competitions for tree climbing including the 2001 International Society of Arborculture International Tree Climbing Championship and the ISA New Jersey Chapter Tree Climbing Championship for fifteen years straight. This competitive streak combined with his skill and knowledge made him the ideal person to consult about the 7 post oaks growing at the Garden Home Retreat.

So, Mark came out to the farm to show me the things I need to do to keep the Sisters strong and healthy. Here is an excerpt from our conversation where Mark discusses tree pruning and tree pruning safety.

Mark Chishom Speaks with AllenAllen: We are really excited about the work you are going to do here.

Mark: Yes, I’m excited too. These trees are magnificent.

Allen: We call them the Seven Sisters but I guess one of them should be designated as the big sister.

Mark: I’d say the one right in the center.

Allen: Yes, that one is in the epicenter of all the activity. Well, tell me what you think of these trees and what we need to do.

Mark: Sure. First, we need to do a little hazard evaluation to make sure everyone is out of harm’s way.

Allen: What are the first things you look for when evaluating a tree?

Mark: Generally speaking I look for what is called the three "Ds" – dead, diseased and dying.

Allen: What about getting to the actual cuts? There is a proper way to do things.

Mark Chisholm Demonstrating a Proper CutMark: When making a cut, there is a lot to consider depending on the size of the branch. If the branch is small, a pair of hand snips or a hand saw is a sufficient pruning tool. Make sure you have secure footing and make a clean cut. But when tackling larger limbs you have to think about a few things, especially when using a chain saw. You have to know about chainsaw safety. When making the cut, what I try to do is make a cut that will eliminate the branch without damaging the trunk tissue. So, I use what is called a 3 step-cut, which is basic on a large limb. Make an under cut slightly into the underside of the branch, stopping before it gets too deep. Then make a topping cut right above or slightly out from the under cut so that when the limb falls it will break cleanly from the tree.

Allen: So, Mark is there a time when a homeowner should consider bringing in a professional tree pruning service?

Mark: Yes, absolutely. It depends on a lot of things, to be honest with you. For example, the current positioning of the tree – if it is near power lines, a house, a roadway. A rule of thumb to follow is that if you haven’t tackled tree pruning yourself very often or you are just not feeling comfortable with the situation, call in a pro. Another reason to hire a tree pruning service is whenever you have to take your cutting or pruning practices above ground. This makes the project quite dangerous. As an arborist I don’t work without firm footing on the ground, a secure anchor to the tree or in a lift. Those are the only places where I feel comfortable and safe.

Allen: I’m sure having the right tree pruning equipment is really important.

Mark's Protective GearMark: Yes. I never work in a tree without having personal protective equipment, what we in the business call PPE. It starts with head protection, which is a helmet or hard hat depending on the job. As a climber I need to have a helmet on my head. This helmet is built for climbers because it has a chin strap so if I turn upside down it stays on and keeps protecting my head. The hard hat styles are made for working on the ground to deflect falling debris from felling and such.

Allen: Very good. Well, I didn’t know the difference.

Mark: You also need hearing protection. You can either go with an ear plug like I use or you can use the ear muff style hearing protection. And then there is eye protection, which of course is definitely a must have. Eye protection should be impact resistant and made for this type of work.

And lastly, we have chain saw protection in the form of chain saw pants. You can also get leg protection in chaps. These protective pants or chaps are made of material that will actually stop the chain from moving once it comes in contact with the material. The material pulls out and stops the chain very quickly.

Allen: I’ve seen that at work. It’s amazing and really clogs up the chain.

Mark: It doesn’t protect you 100 percent from getting a cut, but these pants greatly reduce the risk of having a major injury.

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Timing Your Pruning Jobs

Tree PruningYou can tell a lot about gardeners by watching them prune. I tend to whip through the garden like a cyclone, leaving a wake of clipped branches and stems behind me. Others are meticulous in their efforts, making a careful study of the plant before and after each cut and cleaning up debris as they go.

Whether you are a Tasmanian Devil, Nervous Nelly or fall somewhere in between, pruning does not have to be daunting. As long as you use good, sharp tools, make a clean cut and consider the growth habit of the plant you will be safe. And when in doubt you can’t go wrong by just removing dead wood and branches that cross one another. I think the hardest aspect of pruning is deciding when it is the appropriate time to tackle the job.

Here is a general list of plant groups with some tips on when they should be pruned. As additional resources I suggest you read Lee Reich’s The Pruning Book (Taunton Press 1997) and Peter McHoy’s Pruning – A Practical Guide (Abbeville Press 1993).

Clematis
Clematis is broken down into 3 pruning groups. Group A Early Flowering clematis blooms on the previous season’s growth and should be pruned immediately after they flower.

Group B Large Flowering Hybrids often bloom twice in a season. Lightly prune in February or March to remove dead and diseased wood, but wait until after the first flowering to do any heavy cutting to manage size.

Group C Late Flowering clematis such as "Sweet Autumn Clematis" should be cut back to 12 to 24 inches from the ground in February or March.

Trees
Most hardwood trees should be pruned in winter while they are dormant. This allows you to see the branches and make cuts that will maintain the tree’s natural shape. It also gives the tree a full growing season to heal. Cut the branches off right above the branch collar. This is the area at the juncture of the limb and the tree. You can identify it by the whorls of wrinkled bark. Cutting just above this area rather than flat against the tree will ensure quicker healing. This area of the tree contains special anti-microbial chemicals and phenols, which help inhibit decay. If the cut is made here it’s not necessary to use pruning paint, nature will take care of it.

Roses
Hybrid tea, old-fashioned and climbing roses should be pruned right before the leaf buds break. In my zone 7 garden, I do this in late February. If you live in a cold climate, pruning should be done when you remove winter protection and the danger of frost has passed. An exception to this time frame is the old-fashioned roses that flower once each growing season, such as Damasks and Mosses. These varieties bloom on old wood and should be pruned in the summer after they have flowered.

Flowering Shrubs
The rule of thumb for pruning flowering shrubs is if it flowers after May the 15th, prune it in late winter or early spring for lots of bloom in summer. Prune shrubs like forsythia, quince and azaleas that flower before May the 15th as soon as the plant finishes flowering. This is because summer bloomers flower on new wood while spring flowering shrubs produce flower buds the previous growing season.

For the best bloom production follow the form of the plant rather than shearing it into a box or a ball. I think you will also find that the shrub just looks better when allowed to retain its natural shape.

Flowering Trees
Flowering trees follow the same rule as flowering shrubs. Summer bloomers like crape myrtles should be cut back in late winter, but spring flowering crabapples, redbuds and dogwoods should be pruned immediately after they bloom.

When it comes time to prune spring flowering trees, they will often already be leafed out. To make the job easier, mark the branches that you want to cut with paint or a ribbon while the tree is still dormant and you can clearly see the branch structure.

Evergreens
In general, broadleaf evergreens such as hollies and boxwoods don’t require much pruning. I find that a light pruning with a sharp pair of shears in spring before new growth begins and then again in summer works best. These broadleaf varieties will produce new growth where the cuts are made.

Caution should be used when pruning needle type evergreens such as pine or spruce because they don’t bounce back from a bad "haircut." These types of evergreens should only be pruned to remove diseased/damaged wood. This can be done any time of the year except when temperatures are below zero.