The Art of Pruning


Now that we are coming out of a fairly mild winter many homeowners have begun digging in flower beds and debating on what to do with shrubs and shade trees in the landscape. When pruning the plants you have to use proper timing and a touch of art. So you might be asking yourself why I would prune this gorgeous plant. Here are some reasons that would tempt you to do so:

  • Limit the size and shape of the plant so that it does not out grow your intentions
  • Maintain the balance or shape to a hedge or topiary
  • Remove diseased, infected or broken portions of the plant
  • Stimulate new growth or flowering
  • Protect utilities or structures such as your home

If you have any of these thoughts then you will have a good reason to prune. As I mentioned above that pruning can be an art. When you began your landscape you had a vision as to how you wanted it to look. So with the right plant material you can begin to paint your picture. Before you go out with your electric trimmers or handheld shears be cautious to what plant material you are trimming. Broadleaf evergreens such as Red Tip Photinia or Camellia preform very well with tip pruning. Narrowleaf evergreens such as junipers or cedars will respond poorly to removing more than 1/3 of the foliage. Deciduous plants such as oaks and maples will require tip pruning to encourage a thicker growth. Pruning methods such as tip pruning, thinning, and rejuvenation are some of the ways to reach your goal.

Timing is the most critical component for not only aesthetic value but overall plant health. Remember for plants that but out flowers or fruit you want to prune after the show is over or before the bud is set. A general practice is to prune between February and April giving the plant a growing season to heal. Therefore if you have spring flowering plants such as azaleas you will prune following the end of their flowering in late spring.

3 Step pruning technique
3 Step pruning technique

When going after larger diameter branches in shade trees remember to use a 3 step cut to minimize risk to damage to the tree. The first cut in this method will be located 12 inches away from the tree and on the underside of the branch only passing halfway or a little more. The second cut will be placed 2 or more inches outside of the first cut and pass all the way from the top to the bottom allowing that portion to drop leaving a one foot stub. The last and final cut will be made along the branch collar, a raised portion of bark surrounding the stem. This will give to tree the best chance to completely seal off that cut.

Proper pruning cut (Photo: N. Kleczewski, OSU)
Proper pruning cut
(Photo: N. Kleczewski, OSU)

Remember you can remove dead, diseased, or broken portions at any point of the stem.

Always attempt to make clean cuts by keeping your pruning equipment in top shape. Think about what reason you are attempting to prune and what plant material you are pruning.

Take in consideration the time of the year it is as well as every time you make a cut you are placing that plant at risk for fungi, bacteria, and insect damage until it has been able to compartmentalized and covered the injury site.

Improper pruning site (Photo: G. Bachman, MSU)
Improper pruning site
(Photo: G. Bachman, MSU)

Lastly, in most cases pruning can be solved with proper plant selection. For more information contact your local extension office and view IS 204 on