Demystifying Pruning Season

Temperatures are rising, daffodils are blooming, and lawnmowers won’t be far behind as spring is in the air. A rebirth has begun in the garden and for many home gardeners, it’s time to get back to work. Pruning is just one small part of the many activities that will require your attention, so it’s best we get right to it early and with excitement.

For me this comes with rediscovering my garden, taking an assessment as to what needs to be done, and with my pruners in hand, I begin. I’m told by my staff that I’m a frustrated “wannabe barber” who never got his license, as I enjoy the process of cutting back, reshaping and grooming my garden to perfection each and every year.

That said, I write a lot about creating four seasons of interest in the garden, but this rarely applies to perennial plants as many have a mind of their own and take a much-needed vacation during the off season(s). Spring is the perfect time to reshape overgrown plants back to their natural shape and design. Truth be told, most perennials turn somewhat unattractive during the dormant season; as the temperature begins to drop so does their look and beauty. They are at rest and so should you during this time, but come Spring my garden studio is re-opened, and there’s something extremely satisfying about pulling out my collection of tools. It’s empowering, as it’s time to clean up those messy, sometimes winter-burned branches before they begin to leaf out and begin to bloom. Trimming in early Spring will always help promote new growth, prevent disease and increase blooms making this task well worth the early efforts.

My relationship with pruning is a lot like dating: sometimes you just need to get in and get out. To do that you need to make it simple. Pruning and what tools to use can often be overwhelming to people so I have D-Mystified it here with the four “D’s” of knowing what to prune:

Dead   Diseased   Damaged   Dangerous

Now that you know what to look for, you need to know the right tools to have on hand. You’ll need three cutters and one saw:

Pruners- Ideal for roses and individual branches. Shears “Ò A medium sized pruner. Great for boxwood, small hedges and other form-shaping shrubs. Loppers- A large size pruner. A long handled tool for hard to reach areas and for branches that are too large for pruners or shears. Pruning Saw- An essential to have for trees and large woody shrubs.


What? Don’t you have a pruning saw or lopper? Invest in them, as gardening is easier when you have all the right tools. Seek out estate sales for the best vintage tools that offer history and the best prices. Just a tip: Always take to your local hardware store for shaping and or maintenance.

Now you have all the right tools and you know what to look for, but how do you know where to cut? The key is to make selective cuts, reaching into the shrub and cutting just above where two branches divide. By doing this one can offer a more natural look than evenly snipping all around. I call this type of pruning “playing it safe cut(s).”

Never go overboard, and step away from the shrubs several times to assure too much is not taken away. (I think this is why my staff thinks I act like a barber: I step back to make sure I trim the right spots.) Less is always more, as too much can cause trauma to your plant and could take a complete season to recover.

Want to shape flowering shrubs and trees (like forsythia, lilac, and viburnum) without accidentally cutting off future blooms? The trick is to prune after they have bloomed this year. Once the flowers are spent you can get in there and prune; you can shape and trim without sacrificing blooms that haven’t opened. And there’s a bonus: this actually encourages better blooms next year by directing the plant’s energy. For late summer bloomers, like butterfly bushes, prune in the early Spring to control their shape.

Be so kind: when shortening a long shoot, cut just above a bud. Cut at an angle to help direct nutrients to the bud.

Rain away it’s okay: prune on dry days, as wet weather increases the risk of bacterial infections.

Clean-up Duty: Tools should be cleaned after each use. Doing so keeps diseases, fungi, insect eggs, and weed seeds from being unwittingly spread around the garden. So my secret is wiping blades with a fine coat of olive oil. Don’t dare use the good stuff as a cheap home brand canola or vegetable oil will do the trick. The oil coats the tool and when you go to wash it, all the dirt and muck simply slides straight off. A fabulous quick tip.

For the bigger jobs — like larger trees and shrubs — here is a spring pruning guide link. It’s a great resource that I know you’ll find useful. In addition, The Old Farmer’s Almanac presents a guide to when and how to prune specific varieties of trees and shrubs, and makes a wonderful on-your-shelf resource. So learn, have fun and pass it on.

Pruning the right way is always D-lightful!

And there you have it.


The Answer to Nattie’s question:

Right after blooming is always the best time to re-shape–come fall fertilize with Holly-tone as this contains a complex blend of the finest natural ingredients available. These ingredients decompose gradually providing a safe, long-lasting feeding of all 15 essential nutrients. Azaleas love it!