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This post contains everything you know when it comes to Pruning Tips for your shrubs and fruit trees. Check out the info below to become an expert pruner and keep your garden tidy and growing well!
Pruning is a valuable skill for any gardener, although I found it quite intimidating in the beginning. But learning how to prune shrubs and trees properly will really benefit them. Plus, it adds to the overall aesthetics of your garden.
Why Does Pruning Matter?
Many people look at pruning with apprehension. They worry that they might cut the wrong part of the plant or prevent it from growing any more. Or even kill it.
But if you prune your shrubs and trees properly, you will actually stimulate the plant to grow more. You can even dictate which way you want it to grow. Here are some tips to help you get acquainted with the basics of pruning, so you can pick up the shears with confidence.
Pruning Tips FAQs
What is pruning?
To start, let’s define what exactly pruning is. Pruning is the act of removing specific parts of a plant in order to encourage healthy growth. Parts that are removed include things like branches, buds, roots, leaves, stems, vines, and other kind of arboreal limbs.
I suggest trying to avoid cutting any more than 30% of any given plant, which is just under a third or so. When you become experienced and learn what can and can’t be pruned away, you may be able to discern additional areas of the plant that are appropriate to prune.
Start with less, as you can always prune more, but it’s impossible to undo when you’ve cut off a certain part of the plant!
As a general tip, try to cut in a way that preserves the branch collar. This is essentially the little stub that forms the base of the branch. Leaving this stub will allow the tree to easily bark over the cut area and heal better.
What are the 3 D’s of pruning?
To begin to prune plants, consider the 3 D’s of pruning, which are Dead, Diseased, or Dying. These are parts of the plant that are obviously unhealthy or already dead. For the most part, it will be visually clear which parts are no longer thriving.
The reason you should dispose of dead parts of a plant is to prevent pests. Bugs and other critters will be drawn to decaying plant matter, so removing the dead bits from the plant will protect it from intruders.
What are the 3 C’s of pruning?
Once you’ve covered the 3 D’s, consider the 3 C’s: Crossing, Competing, or Crowding. Any limbs, leaves, or offshoots that fall into this category can be strategically removed.
Crossing limbs will be the most obvious, as these are limbs that are growing directly against others. If you see two or more limbs rubbing together, decide which of them needs to go.
You can also remove any foliage that’s rubbed up against a solid surface like a wall or fence. Cracks in the bark can allows bugs or parasites in, which will harm the plant.
Competing limbs are ones that may not be directly touching, but are growing in the same direction or fashion. When two parts of a plant are competing for nutrients and sunlight in the same place, they might both suffer as a result.
Crowding is essentially a combination of crossing and competing. If there’s an area that’s dense with foliage, there won’t be enough circulation of air or distribution of water, sunlight, and other nutrients. Clear these areas to allow the remaining plants a better chance at healthy growth.
What should you not do when pruning?
There are a number of mistakes one can make while pruning with various degrees of harm to the plant as a result.
- Over Pruning – Perhaps the most obvious is going overboard with your pruning. Taking off too much of the plant will do more harm than good. Pruning removes leaves and stems, which are crucial components in generating nutrients for the tree. Be sure to leave enough leaf and stem volume for proper nutrient distribution and generation.
- Dirty Pruning Tools – Another way to potentially harm plants is by using dirty tools. Keep your tools clean, oiled, and sharp for the best results. Be sure to wipe off sap and other old wood or debris from your cutting blade. You can also use specific kinds of oil to encourage sharp blades. Read all about how to clean and sharpen pruning shears here.
- Pruning at the Wrong Angle – Generally, you’ll want to prune plants at a downward 45 degree angle. A cut that’s too flat might allow water to pool in the stump or or stub that’s leftover, which can lead to fungal infection and other problems. The angled cut will allow water to drain.
- Avoiding Suckers – Sucker growths from trees and shrubs are crucial in helping yield more fruits and foliage, but too many can also cause the fruits that do grow to be small or underdeveloped. You want to find a good balance of keeping some suckers and removing others. This may result in a less bountiful fruit growth, but the fruits that do grow will be healthier and bigger. Sometimes a simple pair of scissors can be enough to get rid of suckers.
- Wrong Season Pruning – Most pruning is done in the fall or winter, as plants are dormant during this time. That being said, this rule isn’t 100% universal; some plants should be pruned at other times. When it comes to specific plants, seek information about pruning seasons in order to ensure you aren’t pruning them out of season.
- Using the Wrong Tools – For pruning tools, you’ll want hand pruners (pruning shears), as well as some other tools. Loppers have long handles and are great for providing more leverage without as much effort and work great on branches and stems with a diameter of 3cm or less. Pruning saws are larger and can be used for thicker limbs and branches. Hedge shears, like their name suggests, are great for trimming hedges. A pole pruner is another tool with a long handle, great for tall or otherwise hard-to-reach areas.
What are the best pruning shears?
The Felco 6 pruners are an excellent option, as is the Felco F2 Bypass Hand Pruner. If you want to go for a more powerful tool, try the Milwaukee pruning shears or Milwaukee pruning saw, which are cordless and battery powdered. These are great for avoiding fatigue as well as fast and efficient pruning!
You may also want to look into shears that are suited for specific pruning, like flowers, hedges, and trees, depending on what kind of plants you’re caring for.
As a note, pro pruners tend to advise going for tools with bypass secateurs (two blades that cross) over anvil ones (one cutting blade that presses against solid metal). Bypass pruners can prevent things like infection and results in generally cleaner cuts.
Here are some other pruning shears that are well-reviewed and liked:
- Corona ClassicCUT
- VRS VS8Z
- Berger 4490 Hedge Shears
- Felco 200 Straight Cutting Loppers
- Fiskars PowerGear2 Softgrip
- Saboten Hands-Free Pruning Shears
Pruning Tips for Your Garden
Prune in order to first remove any parts of the plant that are dead or are dying. Not only will it look better, the tree’s energy will now be solely be going into live branches, instead of trying to keep a dying branch alive.
This will also prevent pests like insects and bugs from flocking to the dead parts of the plant.
Now you can start to prune any branches that are too close together. Stand back often to look at the tree or shrub at a distance; this will help gain perspective and you can see the tree from several angles.
Before you prune your shrubs or trees, do some research online . Find out about your specific plants and learn how to recognize when they need to be pruned.
Generally, you prune woody plants in the spring.
When to Prune Shrubs
You should prune shrubs that bloom in spring and early summer just after they have flowered, to increase their growth and strength. When you have a plant that tends to bloom later in the year, in summer or fall, then you should prune them in the spring.
This will increase their production of new shoots. All cuts made during pruning should be clean and smooth, to enable adequate healing. This means that your equipment should always be as sharp and effective as possible. Take the time to make sure your pruners and other tools are good to go.
In the photo of the hydrangea shrub above, those lowest 3 branches will get pruned after flowering. Because I want this shrub to grow taller before getting wider, those shoots of new growth at the top of the shrub will stay.
Always make the cuts at an angle, to prevent water collecting in the open wound and to encourage healing. If you cut too close to the bud it will die.
However, if you cut too far away from the bud, the wood above will die. So make sure you get this balance right.
When to Prune Fruit Trees
Tree pruning can be a different story than shrubs, especially for pruning fruit trees. Here are some basic tips for pruning a tree. Fruit trees bloom in early spring, so prune them right after they flower.
Don’t forget – ALWAYS make your pruning cuts at an angle. This will minimize extra plant tissue, which can lead to rot and decay.
Prune any branches that crisscross each other. You can see some of those crossed branches in the photo above. Those branches will be pruned out in a couple of weeks when this Apple tree has finished blooming.
Generally, and especially for young trees, you want to protect the main trunk and eliminate competition.
Pruning apple trees can be done almost any time of year as they are hearty trees, though late winter or very early spring is an ideal time for apple tree pruning.
But when it comes to pruning peach trees, for example, this should be done as late as possible before they begin to bloom in the spring.
This is why it’s crucial to research your various plants and find out exactly when their growing season is and when is the best time to prune. Knowing the specifics will ensure that all of your trees and shrubs are healthy and growing beautifully.
Here’s another example for you. When pruning citrus trees, make sure to leave the trunk as covered as possible. You should not see the trunk of the tree.
Pruning Tips for Espaliered Trees
Some people choose to espalier their fruit trees. This means the tree is planted very close to a wall (think south facing wall of the garage or house) and then trained to grow along the wall.
The tree uses the building as a support, and is heavily pruned into horizontal cordons or candelabra shapes.
Espaliering fruit trees is also a great way to build a small micro climate! The heat from the wall could bump you up a full gardening zone (or even two!).
So, if you want to try to grow a peach tree, even though it’s too cold in your area, try using the espalier method. Wrap or cover the trees for the winter. My grandfather was able to grow beautiful peaches using this method.
Here’s a great article to learn more about pruning espaliered trees.
More Helpful Articles for Gardeners
- Planting trees in your backyard? Here’s what you need to know about planting fruit trees.
- Why not make a beautiful perennial border in that sunny part of your yard?
- Got a shady spot? Here’s a flower bed made just for the shade!
- Need to transplant a woody shrub?
Want to find out which are The 5 Easiest Vegetables to Grow?
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originally published 2019; latest update May, 2022