Pruning: What to Cut and How to Cut It

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  • 2-4 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 500-750
What You'll Need
Hand pruners
Gardening shears
Chain saw
Long reach pruner
Hedge trimmers
Weed wacker
Work gloves
Protective eye-wear
Lawn and leaf bags
What You'll Need
Hand pruners
Gardening shears
Chain saw
Long reach pruner
Hedge trimmers
Weed wacker
Work gloves
Protective eye-wear
Lawn and leaf bags

Cutting back the shrubs and trees in your yard every year keeps them neat, attractive, and healthy. Remembering how and when to prune every shrub from small to massive can be a lot, so getting on a regular yearly pruning schedule is a simple way to cut down on work and cost later.

What If You Don't Prune?

Neglecting thick and avid growers can cause a myriad problems, such as pest and disease issues from low air circulation, dieback inside the shrub from lack of sunlight, invasive growth into other beds, and general messiness. Once these problems set in you may need to hire a professional to do a severe pruning, which can be harmful to some shrubs and trees, not to mention quite costly. So instead, learn some tips and tricks to keeping your landscape healthy and neat through small yearly pruning.

When to Prune

Knowing how and when to prune the woody and herbaceous shrubs and trees in your landscape can be a headache. Depending on the type of shrub you want to prune, optimal times of year vary widely. Pruning techniques and tools, with some exceptions, are quite standard.

An article covering the preferred pruning times of different plants would be lengthy to say the least. There are general rules of thumb that apply. Flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs benefit the most from yearly pruning.

Without maintenance, you will notice a marked decrease in both the quality and quantity of flowers and fruit. These trees and shrubs should be pruned directly after they are finished flowering and fruiting for the season.

Many flowering plants start producing their buds for next season soon after they finish flowering, so pruning too late could cause you to sacrifice next year’s blooms. Sappy trees, such as maples, should be pruned during their dormancy, typically early February.

During their growth season these trees are full of sticky sap and any incision made on them will produce prolific gushes of the stuff, which is both unattractive and downright annoying. Other trees and shrubs typically benefit from a light pruning either in mid-fall or early spring.

Evergreen trees are the exception to the pruning rule, as they tend not to need regular pruning because it can cause them stress. Keep in mind that pruning at the wrong time of year may result in a loss of flowers or new growth, but is very rarely detrimental to the health of the plant.

What Tools to Use

The type of pruning tool you need for your pruning job depends mostly on the size of the tree or shrub you are planning on cutting back. Smaller herbaceous or woody shrubs with branches up to 1-inch in width can be pruned using sharp garden shears. Medium sized shrubs require medium to large size loppers.

Medium sized shrubs and trees that extend a few feet beyond your height will require long reach pruners, which have extended handles and blades for some extra reach. A sturdy step-ladder can also make a huge difference in getting the tops of mid-sized trees and shrubs.

Large trees and shrubs will most likely require the use of a chainsaw and a ladder. Trees over 20 feet tall need not be pruned yearly, so reserve these big jobs until you notice deadwood that needs to come off, or problems with the shape of the tree.

If you are pruning only a few inches off of your trees and shrubs to maintain shape, such as in the case of a row of hedges, an electric hedger can take hours off your job. Likewise, a weed whacker for perennial grasses and vines can be a huge help.

Step 1 - Observation

Before you make any cuts, take some time to give your shrub a good look-over. Be watchful for any branches or twigs that look dead. If you can’t tell, snap the tip off of questionable branches. If they snap off with dry wood inside, they are dead.

If the inner wood is green and flexible it is living tissue. All dead wood should be pruned off. Look for any signs of pests or diseases on your tree. Yellowing, spotting, or black marks on the bark could be indication of fungal infection. Stunted, shriveled, holey, or wilted leaves could be evidence of a disease or insect problem.

If you see something that you cannot identify and do not know whether it is normal growth or not, send a sample or picture to your local extension and have them diagnose it for you. You can also bring a sample into your local nursery and ask for advice.

All diseased material should be carefully pruned off and all clippings should be disposed of in the trash, not your compost heap or yard. Keep an eye out for basal shoots, commonly called suckers. Some plants spread by sending up a shoot or cane from the base of the plant.

These suckers will eventually send up suckers of their own, slowly but steadily spreading outward. As the suckers grow, the parent plant will divert energy to the sucker, neglecting the attractive crown growth that you want to encourage. Shrubs that commonly send up suckers include fruit trees, roses and elms.

Clipping off suckers when you first notice them is the easiest form of control. Lastly, look at the overall shape of the plant. Does it look messy? Too full? Not full enough? Is there a particular shape you want to encourage? All of this will come into play when you prune.

Step 2 - Consultation

Even though large trees (20-feet and up) rarely need pruning, sometimes it is a necessary chore. If a branch gets broken, diseased, or is in a dangerous spot, such as over your roof, it may need to come down. Will deadwood wither, die, and fall off by itself over time? Yes. But it could also come loose during a windstorm and be projected into your car, so better to take care of it on your terms.

The easiest way to determine if a large branch or portion of a large tree needs to come down is to confer with a professional. Major pruning jobs like these can be dangerous and labor intensive, and in most cases require equipment that gardeners rarely keep on hand.

Call a local tree maintenance company and schedule a time for them to come and take a look. Consultations are typically reasonably priced and can take less than half an hour. Of course, many companies will try to convince you that you cannot do the job yourself and that you need professional help.

Ask lots of questions about exactly what they will be doing and how they will be doing it. Gauge whether or not you think it is something you could do yourself. One situation in which you should always rely on a professional is if your tree is positioned near electrical lines.

This can be extremely dangerous. Remember: working with huge trees is a huge job. Better to bite the bullet and get help than have a 50-pound branch fall on your house.

Step 3 - Assemble Your Materials

In addition to appropriate sized tools, you need a few other materials to make the job quick and easy. When pruning, you should always wear gardening gloves. If you are using any heavy duty equipment for the pruning of larger trees and shrubs, wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants, boots, and some form of eye protection.

In addition, assembling some cleaning materials before you start will make your job a whole lot easier later on. Have a few trash bags on hand for material that may be diseased or infested for quick disposal.

Use an empty garden bin for easy transport of healthy clippings to your compost pile. Some gardeners lay down a sheet or tarp before they begin to prune. It will catch the clippings and all you need do is roll it up and dump them out when you are done.

Step 4 - Clip Away

The most important rule in pruning is to make a cut where new growth will occur. You only want to make cuts where the branch meets a parent branch or trunk, or at a leaf node or bud. This will encourage healthy healing and vigorous new growth.

Leaf nodes (during the winter) are swollen sections of bark where leaves will emerge in the spring. During spring, summer, and fall pruning, simply cut directly above a bud, leaf, or cluster of leaves.

If you cut to the middle of a branch, the cut may not callous properly which could invite infestation and infection. In addition, new growth may not emerge from the incision.

Cute the Right Spot

If you are taking off a large branch, look for a swollen portion of the branch where it meets the trunk. This swollen area is called the “collar” and should not be cut. Instead, cut right above the collar, leaving a small stump. If no collar exists, which does happen sometimes, leave a small stump, about 5 inches long.

For heavy branches, first cut a small notch on the underside of the branch, about a third of the way through. Then complete the cut with another notch on the top of the branch that meets the first. This will prevent the weight of the branch from pulling off a large section trunk under the branch as it comes down.

As much as possible, reduce the size of the cuts you make as each wound is invitation for infestation or infection. There are sealants you can buy that cover cuts, like a liquid bandage, but these are not recommended due to their tendency to suffocate open wounds.

Again, this is an area in which technique really comes into play and professional help can be invaluable.

Cutting Grasses and Vines

There are plenty of smaller pruning jobs that are easy as well as necessary. These include perennials, such as liriope and other perennial ornamental grasses.

In the early spring, before new growth starts to emerge, cutting back your liriope and ornamental grasses will encourage new growth as well as clearing out dead unattractive foliage. If you neglect doing this for a few seasons, you will notice how messy and unkempt these perennials can become.

Anyone who owns large perennial grasses knows what a chore it can be to cut them back with hand-held shears. Instead, gather the dry grass into a big ponytail and secure it 2-feet off the ground with a zip tie. Use electric hedge trimmers to slice through the grass with one swoop.

Perennial vines, such as ivy and vinca vine, can go crazy without a yearly trim. Every spring I hack these back with a weed whacker. They can take a heavy pruning, and still grow back like wildfire come April.

Many perennial plants will leave behind dead branches and stalks that simply need to be cleared away before new growth fills in. Remember to never mess with the roots of established perennials, as this can be detrimental.

Remove Dead Material

The first thing that needs to go is any dead or diseased plant material. Follow dead branches back to the parent branch or trunk and cut them off. Follow diseased branches back to healthy growth, and cut about 4-inches off of the healthy growth. If instead you cut right at the line between healthy and unhealthy growth, you may miss some of the disease, which will simply continue to spread.

Shape the Plant

Once that is complete, you can move on to shaping your tree or shrub. Topiaries are shrubs that have been methodically pruned to maintain a certain unusual shape. These are easy to prune, just follow the shape of the shrub and trim off any unruly or overgrown portions, just like giving a haircut.

In the case of large topiary or hedges, using a electric hedger to cut 1 to 3-inches off of the outer growth is a quick and easy way to trim.

Cut the Inner Branches

If you’ve found that your shrub is too dense and that inner growth is dying back, prune out inner portions of the bush to open it up for better air circulation. Follow crowding branches to where they meet their parent branch or trunk and cut them here. Inner branches that have taken to growing horizontally instead of vertically can cause overcrowding; trim these off.

Don't Be Afraid to Be Aggressive

If you want to encourage bushy and thick growth, cutting a tree or shrub back a few feet can make a huge difference. Remember that the cuts you make will cause new growth to branch out from that spot. So, cut branches back to the height where you would like to see new branching and thicker growth. You can comfortably take off one third of the plant without causing it any distress.

Get Help

If you do decide to take on a bigger pruning job by yourself, get a partner to help you out. If you plan on using a ladder or chainsaw, having someone on the ground to spot you is a must. A coworker of mine told me once that her husband almost cut his arm off with a chainsaw just by slipping on some mud while he was working.

And this was a man who was very comfortable around power tools. He sliced into his own shoulder and then had to walk all the way back to his house before they could call an ambulance. Being careful is all well and good, but having someone to help you in case of an unexpected incident is priceless.

Cutting back your landscape can seem like a lot of work on paper. But, doing little bits incrementally throughout the year keeps your yard in prime shape. And, with a little know-how, is something you can easily do yourself.

Looking for more pruning tips? Check out "Hands on With Pruning."