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Tips on pruning: Why do it? When and how

  • Jesse Cooke prunes a broken branch from a plum tree <br/>at Hadley Garden Center.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jesse Cooke prunes a broken branch from a plum tree at Hadley Garden Center.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jesse Cooke prunes a formosa juniper at Hadley Garden Center.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jesse Cooke prunes a formosa juniper Monday, March 25, at Hadley Garden Center.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jesse Cooke displays pruning tools Monday, March 25, at Hadley Garden Center.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Outside, a low ceiling of pale gray clouds hung over a hard brown earth patched with snow. This and the 30-something-degree bite in the air declared: this is winter. Inside, gumball-colored watering cans, boxes of bulbs with images of speckled lilies peeling open, and hopeful chatter of flowering shrubs all cried out: spring.

The human ability to imagine, or rather crave, the coming of spring attracted dozens of gardeners to the Hadley Garden Center in early March to learn about pruning trees and shrubs, one of several workshops the business is hosting throughout the spring.

“The first question you always want to ask is, ‘Why prune?’” said Dan Ziomek, who shared his 35 years of experience at the garden center about not only why, but when, how and with what tools to prune all manner of shrubs and trees.

“We prune to change the shape and form of a plant, to make it fit in your yard, to control growth, improve productivity of flowers or fruit,” explained Ziomek to his listeners, some squeezed in back rows among squirrel-proof bird feeders. “Lastly, it makes for healthier plants, opens them up.”

The when of pruning depends on the type of plant: more on that later.

The how of pruning was made clear by a black and white drawing propped on an easel of a tree with bud-tipped branches curving skyward and roots extending below a line indicating the soil level.

Start by pruning away any dead or diseased wood, explained Ziomek. Next, cut off any crossing branches that rub against other branches. Lastly, remove all suckers and water sprouts, the energy-sapping, ramrod-straight limbs that rise up out of the roots and branches, respectively.

“They should be removed as soon as we see them,” said Ziomek of the unwanted limbs. “They’ll suck the energy or growth of flowers and fruit right out of the plant.”

“How do you tell water sprouts from regular branches?” asked a woman in the mostly middle-aged and older gathering.

“Water sprouts generally go straight up,” said Ziomek, his point illustrated on the diagram by three consecutive pin-straight limbs rising out of a branch like a picket fence. “You won’t see many buds on them and they’re very fast-growing.”

A man in the audience inquired about preventing suckers with a product called “Sucker Stop.” The product is not offered at Hadley Garden Center, Ziomek answered, as they have not yet researched its effectiveness.

Before moving on to the many tools used for pruning, Ziomek summed up the how of pruning with this advice: “Often after you prune away the diseased wood, crossing branches, and suckers and sprouts, stand back and look at it. You may see that you don’t need to do anymore.”

What to use

Ziomek then moved through which tool to use for what job and how to care for the pruners, loppers, saws and shears all displayed on a table before the group.

“The bypass pruner makes the cleanest cut, is easiest to use and easily sharpened,” said Ziomek, holding up a gleaming Felco No. 2 pruner with bright red handle. For those who may not care to shell out the $70 for such a pruner, there are other brands and other types of pruners for less.

The anvil pruner is an example of a more affordable type, but its use should be limited to less quality type of pruning such as clearing out forsythia and other sturdy, rangy shrubs, said Ziomek.

Caring for this and other tools comes down to two things: “Keep ‘em clean, keep ‘em sharp,” said Ziomek, who recommended rubbing alcohol and steel wool as needed and 3-in-1 oil at the end of the season.

“They should last a lifetime if you don’t lose them. We hear of them ending up in compost piles sometimes.”

Tools for bigger jobs include the lopper, pruning saw, pole pruners, hedge shears and grass shears. Ziomek offered cautionary notes about the use of some of these more heavy-duty items: loppers are often returned to the store damaged because people try to use them for a too-big job requiring a saw; pole pruners reach high but easily tire the user; electric hedge shears tend to rip branches, and grass shears don’t damage tree bark the way weed whackers can.

“You won’t have to cut too many branches with a pole pruner before you say, ‘I’m calling Shumway’s (landscaping service),’” warned Ziomek of the labor of holding up the 12-foot telescoping handle.

His advice: consider calling in the pros for big jobs and share less-frequently used tools with a neighbor.

Coaxing the most

From the tools of the trade, the lesson moved on to many people’s favorite topic: how to coax the most from their favorite tree or shrub through proper and timely pruning.

Lilacs, blueberries and forsythia benefit from what is termed “renewal pruning,” in which about one-third of the oldest stems are cut off at the base each year to allow for new growth. Look for the grayish, peeling stems to cut away, leaving the reddish or greenish to continue growing. After blooming, the top third of lilacs may be pruned away as well.

For apples and many other trees, “Look for good scaffolding branches that have a nice wide angle, as close to 90 degrees as possible,” said Ziomek, who explained that branches that grow from the trunk at a narrow angle are more likely to break off under pressure due to the lack of structural support.

While apple and pear trees should be pruned now, before buds appear, peaches, apricots and nectarines should be pruned after blossoms appear to see where to thin out the over abundance of fruit.

For clematis vines, Ziomek recommended: “My general rule of thumb is to cut it back by half every spring. Don’t cut it to the ground ever.” “I already cut mine down to the ground,” a woman confessed sheepishly to laughter.

As a reminder of the ultimately forgiving nature of nature, Ziomek recommended the clematis owner to fertilize the over-pruned vine, and others in the audience encouraged her with: “It’ll come up!” Unlike the clematis, the rangy and popular butterfly bush can and should be pruned to the ground in April. “It’s all wood now, so the flowers would grow too high up on the plant if left unpruned,” said Ziomek.

Other pruning cautionary notes included the warning not to prune back “plants that bleed” in the spring, as the leaking sap of maples, birches and dogwoods will attract insect predators in the early part of the season.

“You’re basically sending out a signal, ‘I’m an injured tree. Come and get me,’” said Ziomek, who recommended fall pruning for sap trees, when fallen leaves make branches easy to see.

After the presentation, Joyce Bertrand of Hadley, looking over some of the tools discussed in the workshop, was motivated to get back out in the garden soon.

“In the winter, it’s inspirational to hear about plants,” Bertrand said. “I have a blueberry bush that was losing productivity. I got some good hints today.”

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