Your Guide to Pruning Like a Pro

You know that neighbor who’s always standing on his lawn with hedge shears in hand, ready to indiscriminately hack away at any shrub, tree or perennial that dares to step out of line?

Maybe you’ve seen his house: The one with entirely different plants, lined up, all shaped like multicolored meatballs.

Don’t be that guy, and don’t have that ugly landscaping.

Prune for the right reasons

Prune with a purpose. Are you ‘cleaning up’ a rampant garden, or hoping to promote bushiness or rebloom? Are you trying to renovate a struggling fruit tree, or seeking to develop the tree’s form?

Before you make the first cut, take a walk around your landscape and take some notes about what you hope to accomplish out there.

Learn the names of your plants and take a little time to learn about their eventual size, form, habit, and pruning requirements. If a plant has grown too large and requires constant pruning, consider replacing it with a smaller, well-behaved selection or species.

Now that you know what you want, here’s what to use, what to cut, and how to cut it.

Prune with the right tools

Carry a pair of handheld bypass pruners with you at all times, and use their curved, scissor-like blades for the bulk of your daily gardening chores.

Use anvil pruners for dead branches, and dead branches only.

Use loppers for branches too large for bypass pruners; use handheld folding saws for anything bigger than that, and consider getting the help of an arborist for anything larger.

Prune the right branches

Dead branches: Remove these before they attract potential problems or fall on their own. If the dead wood is finger-width or smaller, use handheld anvil pruners. Remove larger dead branches with a pruning saw or loppers.

Damaged branches: If a branch is damaged for any reason, remove it before it becomes an ugly scar and entry point for disease.

Diseased branches: Remove diseased branches immediately, cutting well below any damage. Clean your pruners afterwards to prevent infecting other plants.

Weak shoots: These are flimsy and fast-growing branches that tend to shoot straight up, ruining the tree or shrub’s form.

Suckers: These sprout from either the ground or the base of the plant, and can effectively take over. Remove suckers immediately, especially on grafted plants such as citrus or pear trees.

Misplaced branches: Alright, that isn’t a real term. The point is to remove any branches that simply don’t belong there. Maybe they diminish the natural form of the plant, or maybe they’ve turned your walkway into an obstacle course. Perhaps they block a desirable view in your garden. It’s fine to remove them.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs.
Courtesy of Zillow Digs.

Choose the right cut

The placement of a cut determines how the plant will respond. Whichever cut you choose, make it just above a bud that is pointing in the direction you’d like it to grow. Cut at a 45-degree angle, and avoid leaving a stub or cutting right against the bud.

It’s worth repeating: Learn about the species before you cut. A simple mistake can ruin the plant’s form forever, leaving you with an ugly, weak, and high-maintenance tree. Examples of big mistakes include removing the leader (dominant, central stem) or hard-pruning a crepe myrtle to the trunks.

A shearing cut is made with either handheld or powered hedge shears. However, don’t use them unless you know that the shrub in question responds well to shearing. Since the goal is to cut close to the bud, only shear shrubs with lots of tightly packed buds, such as boxwood, azaleas, and hollies.

A thinning cut is one that is made at the base of a branch and discourages regrowth from the same point. Use a thinning cut for the following reasons: to open up congested trees and shrubs; remove dead, damaged, and diseased growth; remove crossing branches; ‘limb up’ shrubs for a tree-like form; remove ‘suckers’ or weak shoots; or improve the overall form and appearance.

A heading cut is one that’s made above a bud, with the goal of encouraging regrowth at that point. Use heading cuts to encourage bushiness, develop the tree’s framework, and keep growth within bounds.

A pinching cut is the easiest cut of all, and is used to promote bushiness and rebloom. Literally pinch the soft tips of annuals, perennials, and small bushes by using either snips or your thumb and forefinger.

See? Anyone can prune.

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