Pruning for Health
Many of us live in a very windy location, sometimes to the extent that we have to choose our landscape design and plants that will handle such high winds. Most of the times, we learn this the hard way and now have trees and shrubs that the wind has managed to split, break or even knock down. Along with windy locations we have overgrown plants or plants that do not flower as they once did. Even though other issues can contribute to these situations, all of these symptoms indicate the need for, surprisingly enough, effective pruning. Pruning appropriately can actually help improve the structure of trees and shrubs, making them better able to deal with windy locations. Thinning out and cutting out the old dead parts of shrubs and trees also helps with overgrowth. In addition, pruning the right way for the plant and right time of year will help with plants that no longer flower and overall health.
Most shrubs and fruit trees require some pruning to keep producing healthy fruit and for shaping purposes. In our region most plants endure a time of absolute freezing weather in the winter and, therefore the limb tips of many plants have what is called winter burn where the tips of the branches die from exposure. With this process in mind, pruning on many shrubs and fruit is suggested in spring but judge carefully to avoid too many late freezes. Your evergreen shrubs, boxwood, and trees should not be pruned from Sept 1 to April 1 in our areas of Utah or they will get that winter burn and you will lose a lot of the plant.
Pruning in many ways is similar to grooming a pet or even getting a hair cut. There are a few 'rules' but most of it is getting rid of all the clutter. The number one rule is to cut in a diagonal instead of straight up and down. The will allow moisture to run off instead of remain and gather bacteria harmful to your plants. Pruning sealant is optional and often blocks healing, mainly dependent on the species, so do a quick google search. The steps for pruning are pretty straightforward after that. Remove all dead limbs. Remove all limbs growing inward. Then, thin out limbs that rub against each other. Lastly, Cut out limbs that do not allow light to filter through to the lower limbs. Pruning overgrown trees or shrubs this way will help keep them healthy as well as combat most wind storms.
But there are things to avoid as well. Do not heavily prune any shrub or tree unless under extreme reasons such as advice from an expert, preference of the shrub, or diseased plant (removal might be recommended). Most plants will not endure heavy pruning and can lead to prolonged recovery time or even death. Do not prune in the heat of the summer. It will over stress the plant. Prune spring flowering plants after they have bloomed but all other plants should be pruned while dormant in late winter early spring, usually February or March in most of Utah. Pruning perennials, annuals, and ornamental grasses can be done in spring or fall.
Most plants need to be pruned annually to stay healthy, keep the center from dying, laying over, getting leggy, and remain attractive. As you might expect, spring tends to be the best time do this clean up, but that isn't always the case. Roughly half of all perennials can be left to prune in the early or late winter months, while others will simply look terrible. So, how do I know which time? For the most part, it depends on how much time you have. Taking care of a yard can be very time consuming and it is perfectly acceptable to wait until autumn or even winter on many of the perennials. If you don’t like the mess during winter or there’s too much to clean in spring, use fall pruning, unless you have a permaculture garden and prune only in spring. After that, just pay attention to the plants. If they start to look sickly, then adjust the pruning time.
Often you will want to divide perennials or ornamental grasses in order to keep the center of the plant alive and to fit into the assigned space. (Side note: Not all plants should be divided as it will kill them.) Make sure you wait for a plant to be dormant before you divide it. Some plants will need to be deadheaded, which means removing the dead or fading flowers from the plant. It is best to set one day a week to deadhead for a few minutes. Cut just above the next bud, unless you want cut flowers for the home. Then you cut at the base for length of stem. Usually, cutting back is done early summer to keep the plant contained and healthy but will reduce and push back time of flowering. Pinching, removal of the central stem, is used to help the plant from becoming leggy and over growing space and it also encourages flowering in some plants. Thinning perennials also allows room for larger flowers and when you remove dead or those ugly parts to the ground, the plant simply looks better.
When pruning fruit trees keep in mind a few things. Most fruit trees are semi-dwarf, which means they can still grow between 15-25 feet tall and wide. This could be a desired size for some trees (perhaps cherry), but for optimal fruit production, keep the tree pruned annually. There is no right size, only preference. Most orchard growers keep the trees from 6’-10’ tall and 15-20’ wide. But keep in mind, to properly harvest the fruit, you will need to reach the top. So, fix that heavy ladder in your mind when you decide the height of your trees. Use dormant spray in the spring for the trees to easily come out for spring without major pests. Also spray insecticide, either organic or chemical, in the early morning or late evening. Do this in early spring, every few weeks, to protect the fruit from pests. If you want to keep a permaculture landscape where you don’t spray and kill off your beneficial insects, you only need the dormant spray before they wake up for the season. Then, with the right plants in the right places, these nifty bugs will be your own natural insecticide. Pruning these trees is especially vital for good fruit production, yielding larger and tastier fruit. Trees only produce so much sugar and all the fruit on it will have to divide that sugar evenly. So, too much fruit means bitter fruit. Also, less fruit will make it easier to harvest and to maintain pests.
Correct pruning fruit trees includes a few basics. All fruit trees need sunlight on the limbs and fruit. So be sure thin out each tree. Remove branches that rub against another. Remember, do not remove branches at or near the 45 degree angle from the trunk. Apple and Pear trees are pruned the same - upside down cone shape. Also, apples fruit on old spurs so avoid removing too many of them. Peach and Nectarine are pruned the same - open vase shape. Peach and nectarines fruit on last year’s new growth and are very fast growers, thus needing a lot of annual pruning. Cherries, Plums, and Apricot are pruned halfway between the two previous styles. Cherries, plums and apricots fruit on old spurs and new growth so the shape can be chosen by the pruner.
In conclusion, annually pruning out dead, damaged, and diseased limbs for all of your plants will greatly increase their healthy growth and or production but it will also help you avoid wind damage and that nasty overgrown look.