Many gardeners approach the annual rite of pruning ornamental trees and shrubs with fear and trepidation.
Years of folklore have done their work well. Some people believe that an improper cut may scar an expensive tree or shrub for life. Others think that to spare the rod is to spoil the child, in that an unpruned plant is apt to become an unruly mess. This leaves many gardeners feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And yet, as in many of life's perplexing situations, the answer is often found by applying common sense and a few simple rules.
Begin by making sure that your cutting implements are sharp. This will save you time and irritation, and save the plant you are pruning much possible damage, since dull or inadequate tools tend to crush the wood rather than cut it.
Use the right size tool for the job. Hand pruners are good for everything up to half an inch thick. Long-handled pruning shears or loppers should be used for heavier branches up to an inch. If you are cutting wood thicker than that, a saw is best.
Cuts should be made just above the branch "collar" of the piece you are taking off. This is the slightly swollen ring around the base of the branch where it joins the rest of the plant.
If you cut lower, the plant will have more difficulty closing the wound and healing, and infection may occur. If you cut more than about a quarter of an inch above the collar, the tree or shrub is likely to respond by simply growing another branch there, and you will have to repeat the job next year.
Once you have mastered this basic technique, you are ready for the nitty-gritty of pruning.
In all plants, corrective pruning can be undertaken without endangering the patient, and should be done each year while the tree or shrub is dormant or not actively growing.
First, remove any dead, damaged or diseased wood. Next, look for branches that cross and rub against each other. Keep the strongest or the one that is going in the direction you want it to, and cut off the other.
Many trees and bushes, especially fruit trees and the nonfertile offspring that have been bred from them (crab apples, Japanese cherries and the like), develop what are called suckers.
These are slender branches or stems that arise vertically from the main branches or the base of the plant. They are easily identified because of this habit of growing so very upright, often from older, mature limbs in the interior of the tree, and their lack of further branching.
Suckers are freeloaders in the plant world, and frequently disfigure ornamental trees and shrubs while sucking vital energy and nutrients away from flowering and fruiting branches. Do your tree or flowering bush a favor and remove them.
Pruning roses can be a thorny problem (in more ways than one), which many gardeners approach with dread.
First, let me say that in 20-some years of rose growing I have never seen a rosebush suffer any permanent damage from over-pruning. In fact, some of the finest flowerings have come after seeming disasters, such as when a bush has been lopped '' off indiscriminately by a well-meaning teen-ager or nipped back hard by deer.
On the other hand, various roses respond best to specific types and times of pruning.
Climbers, for example, put out their main flowering canes last summer for this year. If these are cut, there will be no new ones grown until the coming summer -- and possibly no flowers this year, as many of them flower on "new" wood. If you must thin out such a rose, choose only the oldest and most woody canes and cut them back to the ground.
Tea roses, however, flower on the branches that will grow this spring. To encourage many flowers and a bushy habit, they should be cut back to three or four canes, and these shortened to between 6 and 12 inches. Try to make sure the last bud faces outward, so that the new growth will be directed to the outside of the bush, where new flowers can be best admired. This can be followed by a half-cup dose of Epsom salts lightly scratched in around the base of the plant to stimulate strong bud growth in the spring.
Shrub roses should have all dead, injured and crossing canes removed, as well as some of the oldest, to improve air circulation in the center of the bush. The remaining canes should be shortened by one-third to one-half of their length.
Fruit trees are pruned with specific objectives in mind besides that of cosmetic appeal. The first is to open up the tree so that the fruit and leaves receive more sunlight (which improves fruit production). This involves selecting the branches with the best structure and giving them the advantage.
Branches that already have many fruiting nodes (flower buds) should be given preference. Branches that join the trunk or main limbs at less than a 45 degree angle are better eliminated, as the joint may be too weak to stand up to the stress of a load of fruit.
Pruning a tree or bush for shape is relatively easy, but here are a couple of tips to make your handiwork more professional-looking.