The basics of pruning

Once you know how to prune, you need to consider where to prune.

By Katie Lutz

WSU Master Gardener

As winter turns to spring and dreams of a lush garden dance in gardeners’ heads, an important task to consider is pruning. Pruning, the deliberate cutting off and removal of plant parts, not only has a sizeable impact on the appearance and well-being of a plant, but also the safety of the people and structures around it. Let’s take a look at the hows, wheres and whens of pruning.

Pruning of woody landscape plants can be divided into two categories: heading cuts and thinning cuts.

Heading cuts are made to shorten branches, which in turn encourages buds lower down to grow and for the plant to become more dense and compact.

Thinning cuts are made to remove entire branches, which opens up the canopy of the plant, thus increasing light and air circulation. A combination of these cuts contributes to a healthy plant.

Now, when making either of these cuts, you want to cut to something called a “node.” A node is considered the place where a bud was or is. However, a node can also refer to where a leaf or a branch used to be, which is usually signified by a small scar. So while we are pruning to the node for both, remember that heading cuts remove a portion of a branch while thinning cuts remove the entire branch.

Once you know how to prune, you need to consider where to prune on your woody landscape plant. Before you begin, observe the plant. Walk around it as best you can and think about what you want to accomplish with your pruning. Keep in mind what each cut will do, because once you cut, you can’t take it back!

After this, the first of three steps is to look for the three D’s — dead, diseased or damaged wood. These are the priority to prune because of their danger to the plant and possibly to people or objects around it. Be sure to cut back to where healthy tissue is to fully remove diseased or damaged sections, and always sanitize your tools after you prune a plant to stop the risk of spreading plant diseases. Once this has been accomplished, the pruning budget of a plant is often reached. Most plants can’t handle a large amount of pruning in a growing cycle. In fact, for many plants, you will likely need several years of pruning to meet your goals.

The next step is to look for any rubbing or crossing branches. Branches that rub tightly together can cause damage to the bark, which over time can make the tree or shrub more susceptible to disease.

The third, and final, step is to prune for appearance. For example, if there is a branch sticking out of a generally round canopy, feel free to make a heading cut to remove the section that sticks out.

The last item to consider for pruning is when to do it. The truth is that knowing how and where to prune properly allows you to do so at any time of year. If that means pruning some flower buds off before they have bloomed, then do it if that’s what is needed for the long-term health of the plant. The plant may not bloom as much this growing cycle, but by the next one it should have regenerated itself. That being said, there are certain times of the year that lend themselves to pruning certain plants. In late winter, deciduous plants are dormant and free of leaves which make it much easier to see what you’re doing. Additionally, there are few other tasks to do in the garden, so this is a great time to get some pruning in. If you want to enjoy your spring blooming plants to the fullest, such as rhododendrons, you can wait until after they have finished blooming before giving your plant a trim.

Good pruning is one of the keys to a happy and healthy plant. So why not go out and prune a plant today?

Katie Lutz, from Hoquiam, joined the WSU Master Gardener Program in 2016.

Sources for this article include information from Cass Turnbull’s “Guide to Pruning.”

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