Master the Art of Spring Pruning: Dos and Don'ts for Healthier Plants

Dear Friends,

Spring has been a wild ride with fluctuating temperatures, a few highs, but mostly lows but as the warmer weather approaches, it's time to get outside and start pruning. Even the most experienced gardener may feel hesitant about which plants to prune and when. In this article, we'll share some tips to help you confidently prune the right plants and reap the benefits of more growth, bigger blooms, and ultimately healthier plants.

Knowing which plants to prune and when is crucial. If your plants bloom before mid-June, it's best to leave them be for now, as their buds are set, and pruning may cause you to lose the flowers you've been eagerly waiting for. Instead, prune them right after they finish flowering, as many will begin setting buds shortly afterward. Plants such as Serviceberry, Deciduous Azalea, Forsythia, Magnolia, Ninebark, Weigelas, Sweet Shrubs, Flowering Quince, Deutzia, Hydrangeas (the round-shaped flowering ones), Mountain Laurel, Honeysuckle, Mockorange, Andromedas, Rhododendron, Lilac, Viburnum, Dwarf Flowering Plums, Fothergilla, Bridal Wreath Spireas, Redbuds, Dogwoods, and Flowering Cherries fall under this category.

On the other hand, if your plants bloom after mid-June, particularly during the summer, dormant fall to early spring is the perfect time to prune them. Some examples of such plants include Rose of Sharons, Arborvitaes, Boxwoods, Summer Blooming Clematis, Euonymus, Fruit Trees, Holly, Barberry, Butterfly Bush, Bush Form of Dogwoods, Summersweet, Burning Bush, Potentilla, Summer Blooming Spireas and Blue Mist Spireas, Smoke Tree, Roses, Privet, Sweetspires, Kerrias, Dappled Willows, and Hydrangeas with Cone-Shaped Blooms, as well as Annabelle variety hydrangeas.

It's always a good idea to double-check the "when" by conducting some research before pruning your plants or trees, particularly if you're unsure.

Once you know what and when to prune, it's essential to understand how and why.

Remember these three important points when pruning:

  1. Dead is dead. Remove any branches that are diseased, damaged, or broken as soon as they are noticed.
  2. Eliminate branches that compete for the same space. Plants often have multiple branches competing for the same area. To encourage bigger growth, remove the weakest of these branches, and eliminate the strongest if you wish to make your plant smaller or maintain its current size. Many plants become so dense with growth that they lose growth on the inside. By thinning out the areas inside the plant, more air and sunlight can get through, leading to fewer problems with bugs, disease, and more significant blooms, resulting in a healthier plant. When pruning trees, imagine yourself as a bird and trim branches so that you can fly through them with ease.
  3. Prune to promote outside growth. Look for buds on your plant's stem. Some go toward the inside of the plant, while others go toward the outside. Always look for buds going to the outside of the plant and prune above that branch. Since you've just spent time thinning and opening up the middle of the plant in point number 2, this tip will make step 2 a lot easier next season.

If your plants or trees do not bloom well and are overgrown, I would remove up to 1/3 of the older branches and open up the middle of the plant. A pruning saw works well for this task. This will help to rejuvenate the plant with new life and some feathery growth on the inside. If you really want to reduce the size of your plant, removing 1/3 of the branches each year will allow you to take overgrown plants and make them like new again. This especially works well with overgrown lilacs, viburnums, privets, anything that has been let go for too long.

Some other tips I'd like to mention are to use good tools. The saying goes, you get what you pay for. A $5.00 pruner will not cut as well as a $70 pair. Once you use a high-quality pruner or shear, you will not go back to a lesser version. Also, use the correct tool. Larger loppers or a pruning saw is best to use to cut larger branches. If you find yourself struggling to squeeze through a branch, you need a different tool. Keep your blades sharpened and your pruner oiled for best performance.

When making cuts, try to cut flush with a lateral branch. Leaving a small "nub" when cutting instead of cutting flush with a branch will result in a dead short nub you just made. Cutting flush will actually spur on new growth. The books also say to make an angle cut at 60 degrees. If you have the time, this is a good practice to do. Plants are tough and want to survive. It is not a 100% thing to do every time.

When pruning evergreens, always make sure the bottom of the plant is wider than the top. I have seen many clients who have made the perfect ball and wonder why their bottoms do not have any growth. Plants need sun to grow and flourish. Keeping bottoms a little wider will ensure they obtain the sun they need to stay green.

It seems to me, pruning or shearing Alberta Spruces on a cloudy day will help eliminate the brown needles which occur after pruning them. This is most apparent on spiral or pom pom trees.

I have also been asked by many if tree kote or tar should be used after pruning. The answer is no. Plants tend to heal quicker by leaving the cut exposed.

Hopefully I have armed you with some knowledge to get out there and do some trimming. Your plants will reward you with less disease and insects, bigger blooms, bigger leaves and overall a better looking plant. Plus it gives us a chance to get outdoors. Pruning is not scary and if you apply the points detailed above, it can be done quickly and not seem as a laborious task.

As for insects coming out this week, our first candidate for this year is the white pine weevil. They like to bore into the tops of pines, fir and all spruces. It usually causes the leader to turn dead and dieback a foot or so from the top. The temperatures are warming up enough now and if you have experienced this problem, now is the time to spray with Bonide eight or drench with Fertilome's tree and shrub drench. This protects plants for a full year. Just measure the circumference of your tree trunk, for every 1" of girth, add 1 oz of this product to a gallon of water. Dump around the base and the tree will pull up insecticide through the plant. If you prefer to spray I would spray now and again mid April covering the tops of trees to run off. Our wonderful weather is currently running 10-12 days behind last year's time frame. 

I think this year will be riddled with many new species of insects which are finally migrating to Lorain County. Some of these new pests seem to have the potential to be pretty devastating to various plants and crops. I will keep you posted as to when and what to do. Hoping some normality returns to the weather, thank you for reading!