The Kindest Cut

Careful pruning promotes health, good growth habits

Focus On Prun Ing

February 20, 2005|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Even those who prefer a naturalistic landscape need to prune - if only to prevent Nature's indiscriminate scything. Mother Nature doesn't prune. She culls. Ice storms and gale-force winds scour the landscape for the vulnerable. They haphazardly lop and wrench, tear and fell, leaving chunks of debris and big holes in the scenery. Regular judicious pruning can both sculpt the view and help cut down on debris.

"Careful pruning makes a plant, especially larger trees, much more tolerant of high winds," says Vic Priapi, owner of Priapi Gardens in Cecilton. "You're cutting out the diseased and lopsided wood to balance the tree better and give all the limbs the chance to grow strong."

In addition to cutting out dead or diseased wood, pruning removes crossed limbs and branches that can rub against each other and create wounds, which offer opportunities for infection and infestation. Proper pruning of shrubs strengthens the plant, thickens structure to increase leaf and bloom, and produces both visual and structural balance.

"With shrubs you prune to control growth, to give a good shape, and to keep them from becoming overgrown," says Priapi.

Timing is almost everything

Although some trees and shrubs can be pruned at virtually any time of the year, most do best if pruned while dormant. January and February are usually safe pruning times in Maryland. Timing also should be based on the needs of the species and cultivar.

Young trees should be pruned every two to three years to build strong branches. Middle-age, medium-size trees need attention every three to five years to cut out dead limbs and crossed wood. Larger older trees usually need pruning no more than every five to seven years to remove dead or decaying wood. However, neglected older trees should be pruned in stages several years running to achieve the final goal. Take off the most pressing problems in the first year, then attack the second-tier needs the next year, the more aesthetic goals the third or fourth.

Shrubs are a slightly different case.

"Typically, you don't prune shrubs much from mid-March through early summer since you'll be cutting off bloom," says Rob Ditmars, manager of Tuckahoe Nurseries in Centreville. In general, spring-flowering shrubs should be pruned right after they flower, while summer-flowering shrubs should be pruned while they are dormant. "You usually don't prune in fall because it's a signal to the plant to stimulate growth and the new growth will be more likely to be damaged in winter."


Before pruning, be certain you know the species and cultivar of the plant.

Try to imitate the plant's natural shape.

When in doubt, prune less or call in an expert.

Start by removing dead wood and damaged branches. This may be all the pruning that is needed.

Remove no more than one-third of woody stems per year.

Never "top" (cut the top out of) a shade or ornamental tree.

For more information:

Bartlett Tree Experts

Finksburg, MD 21048


Tuckahoe Nurseries

Centreville, MD 21617


Priapi Gardens

Cecilton, MD 21913


Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Forest Service

Annapolis, MD 21401


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