While the lingering snow cover and soft, soggy soils may limit raking and spring cleaning our borders, this is an ideal time to begin pruning many dormant trees and shrubs. A late-winter survey of your property’s trees and shrubs should be performed annually. Mid-February to mid-April is a preferred time of year to prune dormant plants since it is considerably easier to view their architecture and observe damaged, diseased, or crossed branches.


 

Patches of snow and ice still linger in the shadier corners of my landscape, but welcome weekend warmth melted much of Mother Nature’s most recent wintry offering.


As the hours passed and the snowline retreated, hints of tender new green growth magically appeared, beckoned forth by the glorious sunshine that bathed my sleeping gardens and straw-colored lawn. Along my back walkway, tiny purplish-pink bells emerged among the dark green, needlelike foliage of a winter heath, Erica "December Red," offering a welcome touch of color. With birds singing and spring in the air, a new growing season has been set in motion.


While the lingering snow cover and soft, soggy soils may limit raking and spring cleaning our borders, this is an ideal time to begin pruning many dormant trees and shrubs. A late-winter survey of your property’s trees and shrubs should be performed annually. Mid-February to mid-April is a preferred time of year to prune dormant plants since it is considerably easier to view their architecture and observe damaged, diseased, or crossed branches. 


What is pruning and why should we prune? Pruning is the selective removal of specific plant parts for a purpose. Regular pruning improves the health of most plants by eliminating dead, diseased, or damaged tissue while promoting air circulation and allowing light to reach the interior of an otherwise densely branched tree or shrub.


Nearly all woody plants benefit from a routine pruning to train and revitalize their growth or to retrain those that have become overgrown to keep them in scale with their surroundings. Removing stems, pinching new growth or thinning branches may also stimulate greater flower and fruit production or promote larger, showier foliage, depending on the timing of the cuts. Creative pruning can also enhance the beauty of many plants and may be expanded to produce artistic forms as in the case of topiary or hedges.


This year’s windy winter storms have injured a wide range of woody plants. The removal of damaged or diseased stems and limbs should always be a first priority to prevent further injury and the spread of infections. Jagged cuts often collect water, potentially leading to disease, and partially broken limbs may eventually cause the bark to be stripped beneath the tear.


Look for crossed branches, especially in densely branched shrubs and trees, and remove at least one of the branches, as the constant rubbing of one branch against another is an open invitation for disease to penetrate the damaged bark.


To ensure precise pruning, the acquisition of quality pruning tools is essential. Inexpensive pruners tend to produce ragged cuts because they are easily bent out of shape. Bypass pruners and loppers tend to be preferred by nurserymen, their scissors-like action enabling cleaner, closer cuts that facilitate the healing process. High quality pruners, like the Swiss-made Felco, are worth the additional cost for their durability and precision. Avoid anvil-style pruners that have one sharp blade with an opposing flat blunt edge, as these may crush stems and produce uneven cuts.


Be sure to use a pruning tool appropriate for the size of the cuts to be made. Hand pruners are preferred for smaller branches up to half an inch across. Long-handled lopping shears are useful for cutting larger branches up to 2 inches thick. Curved-blade pruning saws are usually designed to cut only on the pull-stroke and are ideal for larger branches and great for tight places. Bow saws cut on both the push and pull strokes but require more room to maneuver.


To shorten a woody stem, always cut back to a bud. On branches where the buds alternate, cut the stem at an angle and cut away from an outward facing bud to encourage growth away from the interior spaces of your shrub or tree, unless you are striving to fill a gap that may have been produced by storm damage. If the plant has opposite buds, cut immediately above a strong pair. Do not leave stubs as these may develop disease, but be careful not to prune too closely to a bud, which may cause the bud to dry out.


When pruning entire branches from the trunk of a tree, cuts should be made just beyond the ridge (above the branch) and the collar (a swollen area below the point of the branch’s attachment to the trunk). Sawing a branch too closely to the trunk may disrupt the healing process or produce new unwanted sprouts around the site of the wound, but do not leave stubs that look unsightly and may lead to disease.


Begin by undercutting the branch about a quarter of the way through before sawing through from the top to prevent the bark tearing down the trunk. For especially long, heavy branches, it is usually best to remove most of the branch about a foot away from the trunk and do a secondary pruning of the remaining stub to ensure that all-important protective bark is not damaged. It is not necessary to apply paint to the wound as this application may actually interfere with the plant’s natural healing ability.  


The acquisition of a good reference book on pruning, such as Lee Reich’s "The Pruning Book," is invaluable for both novice and experienced and gardeners with helpful diagrams that illustrate pruning techniques.


Learning to prune effectively requires practice. A poor pruning job is analogous to giving a bad haircut. Barring the infiltration of disease, the tree or shrub will nearly always recover, regrow and be ready for another trim later in the season or the following year allowing for correction of any gross mistakes.


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.