Woody Pruning

In my last post, I shared some of my observations from the Gardens and we defined “tree” and “shrub”. Now I want to share what I’m learning about the basics of pruning woody plants.

One of the most important parts of pruning is knowing why you are pruning. What is the purpose? It is easy to make the mistake of doing extra, unnecessary, work or harm to the plant if you do not have a specific goal in mind.

A few of the common reasons for pruning are for flowers, for formative structure, or just a routine cleanup of the plant. For flowering plants, the common practice is pruning immediately after flowering. It is a good general rule, but make sure to do extra research on each species of plant you want to prune to ensure you’re doing the right thing.

I want to first discuss how and where to cut on the branch and the different budding possibilities.  Most deciduous shrubs and trees are either opposite or alternate branching. This means there will be a bud on each side of the node or a single alternating bud along the branch. Alternating branches require a cut angled away from the bud. A straight cut across a branch is best for an opposite branching plant. 

Setting up the form for a tree or a shrub early in its life is important. It will have a large impact on the future of the plant’s looks. Trees need their structure guided to produce beautiful scaffolding in the future, if one wants that idyllic winter profile. With younger plants, it is good to remember: “if you are in doubt don’t cut it out”. You cannot glue the branch back on. Establishing good structure early increases the beauty and health of the plant. Shrubs need to be influenced to fill the shape that is intended for the garden or landscape it was placed in. The placement and intention of the planting determines how one should treat the individual in the composition. Most trees and shrubs are a part of a whole configuration, and understanding their role in the design will suggest the best pruning approach.

The last type of pruning I want to talk about is routine pruning. It is good for the plant to take out any epicormic sprouts (suckers), weak growth, limbs that are rubbing, or any dead/diseased stems. This is a simple type of pruning which helps keep the plant healthy and looking cleaner. Once trees become well established, light routine pruning becomes the most common pruning task.

Design purpose guides every action you take in pruning. Knowing how a specific plant grows and reacts to pruning is key to fostering a beautiful, healthy plant. A little research on the plant in question is a good starting point, if you are unsure how it should be treated. There are many rules (more like guidelines) in pruning, but it is always best to know the “why and what” on a plant by plant basis because there is an exception to every rule.

Cody Hoff, Lead Horticulturist

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