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Spring Season Pruning

Excerpted from: Early Season Pruning

Spring pruning graphic When spring is in the air, you might be itching to get outside and do a little yard work. Pruning is a perfect chore for late-winter and early spring because most trees and shrubs are dormant. What's more, it's the time of year when there are few gardening tasks on your list.

What to prune? The prospect can be daunting — even to experienced gardeners. But, with a few simple guidelines, even a beginner can prune ornamental shrubs successfully.

Some shrubs should not be pruned in spring. In general, spring bloomers, such as magnolias and lilacs, should be pruned after they bloom. If you prune in spring, you'll most likely cut off the dormant buds, and there will be no flowers. For these early-flowering shrubs, just look for dead or damaged wood and remove it.

Where To Start?

Begin by removing the 5 "D's":

Heading cut for pruning graphic Remove dead, dying, damaged, disfigured and diseased wood. You can do this at any time of year. Cut these twigs and branches back to healthy wood — or to the ground. After that, look for branches or twigs that cross and rub on one another. Remove one of them, leaving the healthier or better-placed branch.

If you are tackling a big, overgrown deciduous shrub with lots of stems, remove the oldest stems by cutting them right to the ground. You can cut down about 1/4 of the stems each year to rejuvenate the shrub.

Where To Make The Cut?

Thinning cut for pruning graphic Pruning involves only two kinds of cuts: heading and thinning. Heading cuts remove shoots or branches back to stubs, buds or smaller lateral branches. These cuts usually cause the plant to respond vigorously with bushy new growth. Shearing a hedge, deadheading flowering plants and pinching out the tips of plants to encourage branching are all examples of heading cuts.

A thinning cut removes a branch back to its origin or to a lateral branch that's at least one-third of the removed-limb's diameter. Thinning cuts leave the pruned plant with a natural appearance.

When you cut a twig or branch back to the trunk or to a lateral branch, it's important cut at just the right place. Look for a raised bump or rings around the base of the twig or branch and take care to cut just outside it, leaving the ring intact. It's called the branch collar, and this is where the scar tissue forms to heal the wound.

When To Prune Flowering Shrubs

Timing is based on when your shrubs bloom. As a general rule, you prune summer-flowering shrubs in the spring and spring-flowering shrubs in the summer. Why? Shrubs that bloom in spring to early summer, such as lilacs and forsythia, develop flower buds in summer, the year before they bloom. If you prune them in the fall, winter or spring, you'll cut off their flower buds. Prune plants in this group as soon as they finish flowering in early summer

Shrubs that bloom in the summer, such as roses and butterfly bush, develop flower buds on the current season's growth. Prune this group while they're dormant in late winter to early spring to encourage vigorous new growth and lots of flowers.

How To Prune Evergreens (Conifers)

What to prune from a tree graphic Most conifers or needled evergreens rarely need pruning, except to remove the 5 Ds. If you must prune them, do it in the early spring to early summer. The timing and technique depend on the type of conifer. Pine, spruce and fir grow whorls of branches around their trunks. Pinch the tips of the soft, new growth before the needles expand and harden. Don't cut into old wood—it won't regrow from new buds.

Arborvitae, false cypress, cypress, juniper and yew have more random branching and can sprout new growth from older wood. Pinch, prune or shear new spring growth, or prune twigs back to the branch.

When To Prune Fruit Trees

The best time to prune fruit trees is late winter to early spring, while they're still dormant. The goal is to establish a sturdy branch structure that supports the heavy fruit while letting light and air into the canopy. The ideal branching structure varies, depending the type of fruit and the size of the tree (full-size, semi-dwarf or dwarf)

Should You Paint Tree Wounds?

No, trees and shrubs heal themselves by partitioning off the wound and forming scar tissue around it. Painting or sealing the wound can hinder this process and increase the chances of disease and decay.

Further Information:

 The Life Cycle of Plants: Fertilization
 The Spruce: How to Make Your Own Fertilizer
 Pollination and Fertilization