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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Local and statewide information on a variety of current topics for home gardeners and market growers.
ISU Hort Center Winter

Pruning Series Part 1: Timing and Tools


Pruning of trees and shrubs can be an easy practice for informed gardeners. Pruning should be done at the appropriate time of year with the right tools and have a purpose. Most pruning of landscape trees is done to improve structure, safety and aesthetic value of the tree. The proper pruning practice can increase floral displays or fruit load, prevent breakage and ultimately lengthen the life of the tree. A well pruned tree can be worth thousands of dollars in the landscape.

Times to prune deciduous trees are while they are in full dormancy and in Illinois that is February or March. Any time before that they are not fully dormant and may produce new shoots and will get killed from future frosts. Anytime during the growing season, pruning cuts will be an avenue for disease and insect infestations. The exceptions to the rule are elms, magnolia, dogwood, walnut, birch and maple that have a heavy sap flow that will prevent healing of the wound and therefore should be pruned in autumn. The time to prune evergreens is in late spring or early summer after the new growth has begun to harden off. Pruning of early flowering shrubs (those that flower before June 15) should be done in the summer after the blooms have faded. Examples of spring flowering shrubs are lilac, forsythia and viburnum. Pruning of late flowering shrubs (bloom after June 15) can be pruned in the early spring. Examples of summer flowering shrubs are panicled hydrangea, spirea and hibiscus.

Winter pruning of deciduous trees is ideal because the naked stems allow the gardener to see the structure of the tree and choose the branches to be removed and the branches to be left behind.

Most pruning of young trees should be done 2-3 years after planting. According the University of Florida a tree should be pruned at least 7 times in the first 25 years. Pruning larger and more established trees may take several years because one should never remove more than 10-15% of the canopy in one growing season. In addition, established trees may be too large to safely prune and should be left to professional arborist. Homeowners should not prune trees on road ways or under power lines.

A good pruning tool kit would include a good pair of by-pass pruners, hand saw and loppers with handles. The handsaw will be useful for large branches and the by-pass pruners are ideal for smaller branches and cleaning up wounds. Pruning tools should be kept sharp and clean. Jagged cuts will not heal properly and be source decay. Sanitation of tools should be done between each tree, tools dipping the tools into a sanitation liquid of rubbing alcohol or a 10% bleach. Please look for upcoming articles on how to prune deciduous and evergreen trees and how to prune flowering and formal shrubs.



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