Pruning shrubs is not the annual ritual many people think it is. It’s not just a haircut for plants, either. When you prune your shrubs, you are helping living plants provide beauty, privacy and many other benefits, and there’s a lot you need to know to do it right. It’s not complicated. Here are the tips you’ll need to change the way you prune so your plants will thrive over the years and fit your landscape design beautifully.
Your best resource for how to prune and care for your shrubs is your local agricultural extension service. For specific information on your plants, they are your go-to people.
When you prune your shrubs you are creating their current shape, but also telling the plant how you want it to grow. If everything’s going as planned, you might not even need to prune. Plant experts are breeding plants which better meet the needs of consumers, so you may find that you rarely need to prune.
First, if you are pruning for disease, make sure you cut back to healthy wood, and avoid spreading the infection by sterilizing your blade with alcohol or a diluted bleach solution after each cut.
Tools for the job depend on the size and type of plant. Using the right tool for the job protects the tool, the plant, and you. You may use small pruning shears, longer handled lopping shears which can handle larger diameter material, and in some cases you can use powered shears for a broad trim, as with hedges.
For higher branches a pole saw pruner works well, including both a curved saw and a device similar to pruning shears operated by a pull cord, all mounted on a long pole. It takes some practice to use, but saves ladder work. No matter which device you are using, wearing safety goggles is important, and don’t forget to maintain your tools and keep them sharp.
Next, consider your pruning plan. Shrubs have natural growth patterns, and unless you plan on regular trimming to keep an artificial shape, you should consider this when you’re planning your pruning. You should be following a plan just as you follow a recipe to bake a cake. Cutting ends will generally encourage broader growth; branches removed will send more energy into longer growth. If flowers are involved, you can channel energy into their growth as well – but you could also cut them right off by mistake if you trim when they aren’t in evidence.
To perform the actual pruning, this article gives detailed tips for each shrub type. For woody plants, you’ll be thinning growth or removing longer old growth, while for hedges you’ll be training the overall plant with broad cutting. Some evergreens rarely require pruning at all.
Mostly, late winter and early spring are good times to prune if you decide it’s necessary. The plant will generally be dormant, coming to life and responding to your guidance in the months to come. In some cases you may find pruning after the growing season or flowering period is better, you can check with your local experts or the references below for the best advice.
“Follow Proper Pruning Techniques”, Douglas F. Welsh, Everett Janne, http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/pruning/pruning.html
“Pruning Shrubs”, Erv Evans, http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/shrubs/text/pruning.html