In my New England garden, where 6 months of the year plants are dormant, the backbone consists of low maintenance shrubs, evergreens and small trees. To keep order in the border, I prune most shrubs annually. There are many books written on this subject, emphasizing the importance of knowing the “When and How-to’s” of pruning trees and shrubs to promote their overall performance and well being. And that’s where things can get confusing. Certain trees and shrubs should be pruned late winter, early spring, while others need to be left until summer. Following are a few tips I use to keep my gardens looking tidy year after year:
When in doubt, I always refer to my pruning go-to guide; The Pruning Book by Lee Reich (www.leereich.com). Lee’s book explains proper tools, techniques for pruning shrubs,
fruit trees, evergreens, roses, even house plants, and from there he delves into espalier and bonsai for the adventurous gardeners. However, if you only have a few trees or shrubs to prune, there are numerous website tutorials for everything under the sun, which are more than adequate for the basics.
In a nutshell, most deciduous shrubs, trees and evergreens can be pruned late winter to early spring, which in my zone 5 garden is generally mid-March into early April.
Early spring is a great time to prune because you have a clear view of the structure (without leaves in the way) and the trees/shrubs heal better while they’re dormant. The general exception to pruning at this time is that any early blooming shrub or tree, such as lilac, magnolia, or rhododendrons, will have their blossoms compromised by a recent pruning. A newly planted shrub or tree should not be pruned for a few years, to allow it to establish itself. And, you should never prune off more than a third of a tree/shrub at one time, unless it is a suckering type (like twig dogwood), in which case pruning will actually be beneficial and stimulate new growth.
But, why even bother pruning when you can leave a plant to its own devices and it will probably survive just fine? The key word here is “survive.” If you want a plant to merely exist, then by all means let them be.
However, if you’d like your gardens to look lusher and healthier, you may want to go in and trim a little now and again. Which brings me to my reasons for pruning:
Health is the number one reason to prune. Pruning for health involves removing dead or diseased limbs, as well as any interfering branches that are rubbing against each other. Some trees and shrubs also get suckers (a vigorously growing branch-usually straight up) and in most cases it is best to remove these as well.
To invigorate a shrub that is getting gangly, sometimes a heavy pruning-thinning out, or shearing within inches from the ground, will provide the necessary stimulation and get it growing with fresh, vibrant vegetation. Pruning to maintain size is a practice I employ religiously. In order to collect as many shrubs as possible, I often have to place them in spots that they will out grow in several years. By using this “crowding methodology”, many plants will stay within bounds, but for the others like willows, wiegela, dwarf lilacs and rose of sharon, a gentle reminder with the pruner keeps them right where they belong. And last, prune for creative reasons.
Perhaps you want a tree to mimic the shape of another element in the garden, so you shape it like a half moon. Or you want that boxwood to have a conical form, or that dwarf white pine to look like a bonsai, so you remove various branches to expose more of the trunk.
Whatever the reason, or for all of the reasons offered, take a moment and explore your gardens. Examine your trees and shrubs and decide if there are a few snips and tucks you can execute that will perk things for this spring’s performance. Above all, remember to have fun with the process ♥