University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Early Spring Pruning of Trees & Shrubs

February 10, 2000

Last weeks' column discussed early spring as a suggested time for pruning apple trees. What about trees and shrubs—is early spring a good time for pruning? The answer depends on what kind of tree or shrub, as pruning timing can vary.

For example, late winter/early spring is generally a good time for pruning a variety of shade trees. It's easy to see what needs to be pruned since the leaves are off. Wounds tend to "heal," or callus over, faster in this time period. It's best to complete pruning before buds break, however. Also, avoid "bleeders" such as maple, birch, and elm. It may be best to wait until fall with oaks to due to oak wilt disease.

As a group, early spring is not the time for most evergreens to be pruned, in particular pines. Pines should only be pruned by pinching back or shearing the new candles, which is typically in June. Perhaps the best example of suggested spring pruning on an evergreen would be major pruning of yew or juniper. Do this in early April, right before new growth starts to occur. Remember to cut back to green shoots when reducing the size of these plants.

Now may be a good time for deciduous shrubs to be pruned, or it may not. The main consideration is when the shrub blooms. If it's a spring bloomer, wait until just after flowering to prune or you'll be cutting off flower buds. A cut-off date of about June 15 is helpful; if the shrub blooms prior to this, prune it right after flowering.

Assuming it's a good time to prune a shade tree, where does one start? Once again, it
depends on a number of factors, but there are a few general concepts to keep in mind. Make sure you've got the proper equipment, including a pruning saw, loppers, and hand shears. Use each tool according to the cut that needs to be made.

Start by removing damaged or broken branches. Try to promote a strong framework to the tree. Thin out growth that is too congested. When deciding what branches to remove, consider where the branch is growing and what potential problems it may run into as it gets larger. How much growth to remove is sometimes difficult to say, but keep in mind the tree needs foliage this season to produce food for itself and you can always cut off more next year.

Finally, don't bother with wound dressings. Make a good clean cut and the tree will deal with it. Help the process by allowing the collar area to remain after removing a branch, rather than cutting it perfectly flush with the trunk. Don't leave stubs to invite decay, however.


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