This article will expand on basic pruning ideas put forth online at: https://clearwaterlandscapes.com/pruning.htm . If you haven’t read this, it’s a short, but important introduction to the following.
Visualization is an extremely important skill which will help in your pruning efforts. For this reason, I’ve created some simple line drawings and added them to the bottom of this page.
Important considerations about dormant pruning
When dormant pruning, cuts must be made with full knowledge of future consequences, relying on our perception, or visualization, of the plant’s growth characteristics, intended use, age and desired form. Various plant forms are “created,” early in the plant’s life, by choosing new growth which will eventually produce the desired shape. Growth which does not conform to our visualization is removed.
For example, the vase, or open center, tree relies on a short, strong vertical trunk to support several main leaders, which in turn support numerous “laterals.” Choose leaders which emerge from the trunk at approximately a 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock angle; these will provide the strength necessary to hold future growth, snow and ice loads and the crop. Leaders must be spaced evenly around the trunk.
As leaders enlarge over the years, choose the laterals which directly hold foliage, flowers and/or fruit. By visualizing the mature form and understanding growth habits, proper spacing of laterals is achieved. For instance an apple needs room to mature with plenty of light and air, but this vigorously growing tree continually sends out excess growth which will stunt the development of fruit (as well as limiting total plant health).
With regular dormant pruning, saw cuts are seldom necessary
– but if they are, *take great caution*. In Fig. 2 notice that the final cut is slightly outside the trunk line and angled down and outward. This insures that the trunk’s sap flow will produce the healing tissue which will eventually seal the cut. The cut should be just outside the swollen collar of the branch, though some trees will not exhibit much of a collar.
Many trees have been lost or seriously deformed by the improper saw cuts – take care and understand exactly what you are doing. Don not use tree paint or any other sealer on pruning cuts. If you are not sure of your technique, call a professional.
The most common error of amateur pruners is leaving “stubs.” When heading back smaller, side branches, always cut just above a bud – or just above lateral growth. When thinning entire branches, cut back to the source growth. See Fig. 3. Stubs invite rot – Do not leave stubs!
Vigorously growing plants produce “suckers,” rapidly growing, usually vertical, shoots. Cut these yearly, or they will restrict air and light from the middle of the plant and eventually become dominant over properly positioned growth. One exception to this rule is when reworking older trees or shrubs, a well placed sucker may be chosen to replace a branch too horizontal or otherwise inferior. After one season’s growth, cut this sucker back to an outside bud, removing 1/3 to 1/2 of its length.
Care must be taken when dormant pruning old, overgrown trees. A thorough job completed in one season could seriously weaken, or possible even kill the tree. Spread this renovation pruning over a three year period to limit shock to the tree.
When pruning hedge plants, be sure to angle the sides slightly outward from top to bottom; otherwise, lower portions of the plant will not receive enough light, will become thin, and eventually leave bare areas – see Fig. 4.
To summarize briefly – remember to visualize the ideal form of the plant and make each cut contribute to that form. Remove diseased, dead or damaged wood and remove branches which cross (or those which you see will eventually cross or otherwise conflict). In general, favor growth which grows outward over growth which grows back toward the middle of the plant.
Always use a sharp pruning tool and never leave stubs!.
This basic discussion of dormant pruning will get you off to a good start, but before going out to prune the whole yard, gather additional information from a good book and/or lessons from an experienced pruner.
See our complete list of garden how-to articles here.
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About Dan Eskelson
Dan has had his hands in the soil for most of his adult life as a gardener, landscaping contractor, golf course superintendent and landscape designer. When the ground freezes, he builds websites, produces video and plays the hammered dulcimer. Full bio here.