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PRUNING 101: HOW DO I CUT THAT?

Pruning may seem like a daunting task, but once you know the rules it’s a quick path to expert. Credit: National Archives at College Park via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain].
Pruning can be a nerve-racking ordeal if you’ve ever been…

…on the wrong side of a bad hedge cut. But thoughtful, moderate pruning of your woody plants can be the difference between a well-manicured space and an overgrown mess.

A before and after of proper pruning techniques from the turn of the century. Credit: Bailey, L. H. (Liberty Hyde), 1858-1954 via Wikimedia Commons [No restrictions].

When designing your new landscape, it’s best to choose plants that are appropriate in scale. However even these need a prune from time to time—especially if you’re looking to extend the bloom season of a favored shrub or open air passageways for fruiting trees to boost productivity. While each tree and shrub is different, it is generally advised to avoid pruning woody plants in late winter and early spring.


“It is important to know the plant species ahead of time as this will dramatically alter how and when to prune…”


Pruning is also a good way of training a woody plant into fun shapes or against walls for interest or to extend the growing season.  “Since the bud will make a branch in the direction it faces, we can pretty well control the shape of a plant by pruning at selected buds,” according to How to Prune Almost Everything by John Philip Baumgardt.

It is vital to know the plant species, cultivar, or variety ahead of time as this will dramatically alter how and when to prune. If it is an evergreen, trimming the wrong bud or stem could mean a permanent hole as the terminal bud on most evergreens are bud dominant and release growth-inhibitors to discourage growth competition near the tip of a branch (hence most evergreens’ apical shape where inward branches grow larger than the tips).

Remember to clean and sharpen pruners before starting. Credit: shrinkin’violet from Bristol via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0].

Where on the stem to prune can cause undue anxiety as well. Too close to the trunk and you expose the tree to a greater risk of infection or disease. Too far and shallow and water can pool on the cut, causing rot and a whole new set of issues. Best practices usually involve cutting at an angle down and out from the trunk outside the branch collar. Always sterilize equipment with a 10% bleach solution between cuts to avoid cross-contamination and use tree-wound dressing after as you are cutting through vital systems that carry sap and nutrients throughout the tree.

Each species handles pruning differently, but as general rule of thumb:

Most shade and ornamental trees and shrubs can be pruned at any time save birch, maple, or walnuts as they will bleed if pruned in late fall or early spring. For general shaping and overcrowding, prune in WINTER. For dead wood and lowering crown, prune in SUMMER. Conduct any work that is near the root system in FALL.

Remove vertical branches within the crown for better air flow. Credit: I.Sáček, senior via Wikimedia Commons [CC0].

For fruit trees consult your County Agricultural Extension Agent for your specific location. In the Chicagoland area, fruit trees like crabapples and peaches should be pruned in “early MARCH before the buds begin to swell,” according to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Prune vertical branches inside the crown to allow air flow and encourage more lateral branching that typically produce more fruit.

Many evergreen trees are apical due to terminal bud dominance, so be careful and selective when pruning so as not to permanently butcher your trees. Prune when new shoots are expanded, but before they are hardened in MID-SPRING. Old growth that is pruned off will most likely not be replaced.

Evergreen hedges can be sheered freely during the growing season—just be sure not to prune past old growth as it will most likely not be replaced. Plant individual plants with space between to allow them to fill in. Prune as they begin to grow and increase in intensity throughout the season as necessary.

For perennials, pinch off spent blooms before seeds form for continued bloom and to prevent unwanted seedlings. For plants that grow taller, pinch the soft vegetative tips after the second leaf for bushier, shorter shrubs and to increase flower buds (though the more flowers on one plant, the smaller they will be). Cutting stalks near branching can also encourage a second crop of flowers. The last time to prune early bloomers is MID-JULY, and AUGUST 1ST for late bloomers.

Kemora Landscapes is a full-service design, build, and maintenance company based in Chicago.

Larger trunk pruning can sometimes be necessary if a branch is in the way of traffic or is dead. If it is big enough, three cuts instead of one will be necessary to ensure the best cut for the tree. Credit: Arbor Day Foundation.
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