When Done Properly, Pruning Can Be The Kindest Cut Of All

April 21, 1991|By David McNear | David McNear,Contributing writer

At first, it seems like a paradox: One of the most effective ways toencourage the growth of a healthy, attractive tree or shrub is actually to cut, saw or otherwise chop at it methodically.

Pruning at its best can rise to the level of an art with potential for a personal, creative touch. By pruning, you can enhance a plant's natural growth pattern and coax it into its optimum shape.

Besides training a plant's growth, pruning provides other gardening benefits. When transplanting, good pruning can make the differencebetween life and death for your plant. Root damage often occurs whentrees or shrubs are transplanted. If this happens, you can cut back the top of the plant to restore a proper balance between the root system and the rest of the plant. By cutting off those buds which would have started growth earliest, you ensure that root growth will begin before leaf growth, which means an adequate supply of nutrients for your newly-pruned transplant.

Pruning also can help you control thesize of your plants. If you are dealing with limited space, pruning your plants allows you to enjoy a more diverse garden. Also, pruning is sometimes necessary for large trees and shrubs which have grown too close to power lines (although this may be best left to professionals), driveways, sidewalks or buildings.

Finally, cuts can be used as a preventive measure or to excise any diseased or damaged limbs. Any limbs or branches with large infestations of insects or significant bark damage should be cut off promptly. Rot or disease can threatenyour plant through broken bark.

But all these good reasons to prune don't make it an easy chore. Pruning can make even the greenest ofthumbs red with anger and frustration, and can turn even the most beautiful bush or tree into an unrecognizable mass of branches and rot.

To avoid this you need to learn just a few basic cuts and the effect each has on a plant.

The first cut is a thinning-out type of cut. Here an entire branch is pruned either back to a main branch, thetrunk or the ground. This thinning cut opens up a tree or bush and encourages stronger growth among the remaining branches.

Thinning cuts always must be made flush with the trunk or the ground. Small stubs will not only look ugly, but the wound won't have an opportunity to heal properly. The wound becomes a convenient entry for disease and decay. A flush cut will heal cleanly, protecting the plant from rot. To get a good flush cut, make sure you're working with sharp tools.

The second type of cut is known as a heading-back cut. This cut is made in the middle of a branch to shorten it.

When this cut is made in the wrong place, it can result in an explosive growth of stems at the tip of the branch -- sometimes called a witch's broom. To prevent this, the heading-back cut should be made just above a bud or fruit. It's best to cut about 1/4-inch above the bud. If the cut is too close, the bud will die. If the cut is too far from the bud, the branch above the bud may die and rot.

In general, branches should be pruned to outside buds, ones facing away from the center of the plant. Pruning to outside buds will produce a fuller, spreading tree, while pruning to inside buds will lead to ingrown limbs and bark damage.

The final cut is known as a lateral cut. This cut is made by completely removing one of two similar branches growing side by side. The remaining branch will flourish.

Whether you are doing a thinning, heading back or lateral type of cut, your technique will differ according to the size of the branch.

All smaller branches (approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter or less) can be handled with heavy lopping shears or lighter hand pruners. Always cut these smaller branches, no matter how puny you may think they are, because frayed bark and splintered ends provide yet another opportunity for rot and disease to attack your plant. So always cut them off -- don't rip or break them off.

Larger branches should be pruned in sections. If you just start sawing at a large branch, its own weight will cause it to break off when the cut is only partially done. This will rip off a large section of bark and leave a ragged wound.

First, you should make a cut on the underside of the branch a few inches out from the trunk. This cut, commonly known as the undercut, should only go about halfway through the branch. Next make another cut from the top of the branch a few inches in from the undercut. As the second cut nears the first,the branch will fall away without taking much bark with it. You willbe left with a short stub which then should be cut flush with the trunk.

Armed with an understanding of the basic cuts, you still needto develop a strategy for pruning. For this, it helps to know something about the way plants grow.

Sap is the basic nourishing energy of the plant and the force which encourages growth. Since the amount of sap in the plant remains relatively constant, pruning or removing branches which require nourishment frees sap to be used by the remaining branches, which in turn grow stronger.

Keep in mind what shapeyou want your plant to become. Trimming the sides and top of the tree or shrub, for example, will encourage bushy growth, while pruning the lower limbs will spur upward growth.

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