For some reason this time of year -- fall -- finds us with the pruning shears in our hands and many of us get carried away. Most common shrubs and trees should be pruned in late winter or early spring -- not in the fall. In other words, we should be outside on a decent day in late November to mid March to do pruning we are more likely to be doing in September or October. Pruning deciduous (this means not evergreen -- or shrubs and trees that lose their leaves) plants in the winter promotes fast regrowth in the spring as most plants are dormant during the winter months. It is also easier to see the shape of the plant in the winter since the foliage is gone.

Before I outline the basic rules of pruning, there are exceptions to pruning in Late Winter/Early Spring. Summer is the best time to remove dead branches because they stand out and any diseased or damaged stems should be removed as soon as you see them as they will attract insects and invite more disease to develop. Also remove crossing water spouts (vigorous upright growing shoots that form on trunks or side branches) and suckers (vigorous shoots that develop near or from below ground). Prune spring flowering trees and shrubs right after they finish blooming in the spring (otherwise you will not have flowers the next year). Other deciduous plants that basically bloom in the summer fall into the late winter/early spring category because fall pruning will stimulate new growth that will be killed by the winter freeze.

For any pruning, choose the right tool like a clean, sharp pruning saw for branches larger than 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Lobbers for branches 1 inch or so and pruners on smaller branches. Other general rules:

  • Prune on a mild dry day
  • First prune out dead and diseased branches (that you missed during the summer)
  • Remove the overgrown and smaller branches to increase light and air at the crown of the tree
  • Your goal is to maintain structure of the tree or shrub
  • Cut branches at the node or collar - the point where the branch attaches to another branch or the trunk of the tree.
  • Disinfect your tools between pruning jobs.
  • Dress appropriately with long pants, long sleeves, gloves, safety glasses, non-skid shoes, brimmed hat. If you must prune from a ladder, tie it securely to the tree and have someone else there to help secure the ladder, or when you get to my age, have someone else do the pruning!
  • Treatment doesn’t benefit the plant so do not treat the wound.

A bad pruning job is rather like a bad haircut - it can be improved over time – unfortunately usually years instead of weeks so it is best to get it right the first time.

Are you interested in becoming a Master Gardener? Interviews and registration has started for the classes that will begin the end of January. Contact the U of I Extension Office in Charleston for more information 217-345-7035.

If you have other questions about your garden or landscape, feel free to contact a Master Gardener volunteer at the University of Illinois Extension office in Charleston at 217-345-7034. You can also check out the many horticulture webpages at the U of I Extension’s website by visiting http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/ . And be sure to like the Master Gardeners’ Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/ColesCountyMasterGardeners.

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