“Glorious February afternoon” isn’t a phrase I have used often in my life, but I have certainly enjoyed the ones we have had this winter. I have been using the recent warm days to give some of my shrubs much-needed haircuts.
Pruning does not need to be one of the great mysteries of gardening, and the techniques I use are pretty simple. Regardless of what I am pruning, I start by looking for two types of growth: Deadwood and rubbing and crossing branches.
Whether you are pruning a tree or a shrub, deadwood can be removed any time of year. Cut back to healthy wood, and be sure to discard the trimmings away from the garden to prevent the spread of any diseases or insects that may have caused the damage.
Rubbing and crossing branches need to be removed because the rubbing damages the bark on both branches. The damage makes it easier for diseases and insects to get a foothold. Rubbing and crossing branches also create congested growth in the center of the plant.
Whenever you prune a shrub, start by taking a step or two back from the plant to look at the overall shape and identify branches that rub or cross. Mark the culprits with plastic tape if necessary. Marking is also a good idea if you want time to decide which of the two branches needs to be removed. It can be particularly hard to decide when pruning old, overgrown shrubs, because they have so many congested branches in the center. In this case, you can make a plan to prune over several years, and cut out a few branches each winter.
Basic Annual Shrub Pruning
Illustration by © Elayne Sears, from How to Prune Trees & Shrubs, © by Barbara W. Ellis, used with permission from Storey Publishing.”
I usually select branches that cross the center of the plant to remove, because this not only eliminates rubbing, it opens up the center of the shrub to let in light and air. When removing a branch, use thinning cuts. That means, always cut back to where that branch arose from another branch or from the ground. Leave the branch collar, the wood around the base of the branch, intact to promote healing.
Also use thinning cuts to remove any wayward or overly long branches that ruin the shrub’s overall shape. Your objective should be a shrub that is somewhat wider at the bottom than the top, so that light reaches the lower branches. Always cut back to another branch, because pruning actually spurs growth. If you cut across a branch, rather than removing it entirely, it responds by producing vigorous shoots at the tips that quickly regrow. Thinning cuts do not cause this response.
My book, How to Prune Trees & Shrubs, provides much more information on pruning, including principles that every gardener needs to know, basic pruning guidelines for all types of shrubs, trees, and vines, and plant-by-plant lists with recommended pruning times for a wide range of popular plants. You can order it by clicking the book cover on the right.