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  • Writer's pictureTom Cavan

PRUNING PROTCOL As I have matured and evovled as both plantsman and a Landscape Designer...........

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

Of all that I have learned and passed on to my clients, nothing has been more important than telling people how to prune woody plants. Deciduous trees, Flowering Shrubs, Evergreens, and Broadleaf evergreens are the persistent soldier plants in our gardens (fingers crossed) this is one aspect of the landscape where both professionals and hobby gardeners make the most troublesome mistakes. I cringe when I see people carving shapes, cutting back plants to control their inherent shape and size (mainly because they where planted in the wrong location) and for the most part always at the wrong time of year.....namely spring. So as we approach spring weather and the garden comes to life everyone looks out the window, take a walk around their domain, and begins hacking away with absolutely no idea of what they are doing. Sound and seen perennially as the grass beneath our feet. So let me set the record straight once and for all...... please pay attention and heed the call to put down your pruners and step away from the plant(s). I will try to explain as simply as possible so you can all practice proper pruning protocol.

This is what I see when I pass by so-called landscape mtce companies carving up shrubs into balls and pyramids.

OK so here are the basic rules to follow:

#1 remove all dead wood and inside crossing branches as all dead wood only provides a place for insects and disease, looks worse than a bad hair day. Inside crossing- branches take potential growth away from the desirable parts of the plant and over time rub each other opening wounds for further infection and basically killing each other. Also, dead wood and crossing branches reduce the amount of sunshine and air movement through the plant. And on another note crossing branches tend to be upright with narrow crotches and split apart in wind and ice storms potentially ruining a good thing. When there is dead wood and the pruners are sharp, it's time.

#2 step away from the plant you are done! That's correct because anything else you do will change the natural habit of the plant and increase maintenance!! And last time I checked no one has ever asked me how to increase the maintenance of their property. If you decide to shape plants or change their habit then read on...

#3 Ok so you received a new pair of pruners and cannot help yourself you need to know the most important thing is when the right time to prune is crucial. No matter what the name of the plant is the rule is pretty simple...Always prune after the flowering date (reproductive system)of the woody plants. If you prune prior to the flowering date you will be removing the plant's inherent reproductive stage and thus really mess up its biological habit. Also, you lose the flowers, fruit, and seed production, you basically neuter your garden! Did you plant flowering shrubs in your garden with the intention of torturing them? Well, it seems that way!

BY pruning after the flowering date, you keep this so important life attributes intact.

So if it flowers in spring it means the buds were formed in the fall so prune in summer, if it flowers mid-season to fall, the flowering buds come on new season growth so you prune just prior to spring. Now for some, this is a challenge because inexperienced gardeners have trouble identifying dead wood. For beginners what for the slightest green tips to start and then prune as that is last call for that plant. Experienced gardeners will tap the branch with their pruner, a thud means life(moisture) a twang means dead (dry). You can also scrap a lateral piece of bark with your thumb nail and green is good, brown is not. As time goes on you will become quite accustomed to identifying dead wood, its discoloured, either shriveled or bark peeling etc.

Here is one of the many mistakes being made by misguided information and demand for a groomed look. These Viburnums where planted properly and lots of space to mature, but whoever is being paid to maintain them is guilty for ruining this landscape.

On closer inspection the centre crown is full of dead rotting stumps, the congestion of dead wood and weak branches is a nightmare on Viburnum street. These plants will not perform as advertised and are slowly dying. This could be avoided by proper pruning techniques from the start. If the person responsible for this was directed(paid) to prune these plants to maintain this look and had they followed my rules. This could still be prevented but is high maintenance. What they should have done was plant dwarf shrubs to begin with, not a plant that has the potential to grow 5 times this size.

Heres is another common crime in commercial landscape maintenance, this poor Ash tree has been topped to control its size for the parking lights for additional security, I get that but why are they planting (shoe-horning) trees with the potential of 60'+ in height and width in asphalt and concrete, I tell you why, because they are cheap and tolerant. Take a look at the bark of this tree, and repeat after me...Emerald Ash Borer. This poor tree never had a chance, first butchered then insect infection and disease and now will probably stand in deterioration and humility until death do us part.

The tree will eventually shame someone into removing it. Costly!

So lets recap:

Know the plants habit ie size flowering date to know when to prune

Remove dead wood and crossing branches

That's the basics. The next blog will be on Pruning the exceptions to the rules.

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1 Comment

Tom Cavan
Tom Cavan
Mar 31, 2020

Wow, great article, thanks for the info!

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