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Education:Pruning

Pruning and Maintenance Tips

Regular pruning is the best investment you can make for your landscape.

When done correctly and at the right time, you enhance your landscape, improve the health of your plants, and reduce future maintenance costs. Correct pruning does not always involve shearing and, often, could be detrimental to the plant. If you have questions on any type or time of pruning, call us to talk to one of our horticulturists. We are here to offer professional advice.

Trees

Regular pruning is the most important thing you can do for your trees.

Pruning trees is considered an art that requires proper training, experience, certifications and safety equipment.
Contact us for advice and we can recommend certified professional pruning companies for you.

Pruning provides many benefits, but if done improperly, it can be harmful. Overpruning can rob a tree of food producing leaves, delaying healing and regrowth. Learning to prune trees is not as easy as shrubs and evergreens. Pruning trees is considered an art that requires proper training and experience. We can recommend certified professional pruning companies for you.

One type of pruning that can easily be done on ground level is sucker removal. Suckers are vigorous shoots arising from the roots of a tree. Most often, the suckers are from a grafted rootstock and can overtake the desired plant on top. Remove the suckers in the dormant season using a scissor-type pruning shears at or slightly below the ground line. Generally, this must be done every season, depending on the vigor of the plant.

Shrubs

Regular pruning is the most important thing you can do for your shrubs.

Without the correct pruning methods, the health of the plant could decline rapidly. There are four basic methods for pruning shrubs: Renewal Pruning, Rejuvenative Pruning, Heading or Thinning, and the "Haircut" Method. All four methods may be used on certain shrub varieties, but it's common for these methods to be used in combination. See the Pruning and Maintenance Guide in the additional resources section at the bottom of this page.

The best time to prune most shrubs is when they are dormant, just prior to bud break in March or April. Although, pruning shrubs can be done anytime during the dormant season. Proper timing allows the cuts seal over and new growth quickly arises. Do not prune in late summer or early fall because the new growth will not fully harden off before winter. Exceptions to the dormant season timing are early spring blooming shrubs such as Forsythia, which should be renewal pruned after enjoying the flowers. In our Pruning and Maintenance Guide at the bottom of this page, these plants are marked with an asterisk (*).

Evergreens

Regular pruning is the most important thing you can do for your evergreens.

Yews, Junipers and Boxwoods

Generally, shrubby junipers and yews must be pruned-in some fashion-every year, while boxwoods require less frequent attention. Traditionally, these shrubs were sheared after their flush of growth. However, it does not have to be done this way. A more natural shape can be achieved by selecting and heading back the most vigorous branches or buds in April or early May. A second follow up may be necessary around July, particularly for yews. Not only does this maintain a more natural form, but it also creates a smaller, denser plant by inducing more lateral branching.

Spruce, Fir and Douglasfir

Spruce, Fir, and Dougalsfir require little pruning after placement in the landscape, most pruning is done by the nursery. Any pruning done must be limited to the new growth only, since buds are not produced on older wood. Using a hand pruners, prune back to just before existing lateral buds. This type of pruning is called a "heading cut". It helps add density to the plant and can be useful in filling out thin areas. It is important to remember that Spruce, Fir, or Douglasfir cannot be made smaller than it already is. Also, never prune the leader. If the leader becomes broken or damaged and multiple leaders result, simply select one leader and remove the others.

Pines

Pines require a different pruning method and only prune your evergreens when they are actively growing. The most commonly pruned pine is Mugo Pine, which comes in many forms and selections. Although the principle is applicable to any type of pine, Mugo Pines must be pruned every year if keeping the plant smaller is desired. Simply snap off a portion of the new "candle" with your fingers before it fully expands. The candle stage refers to the new terminal growth, before it fully expands. Do not snap off the entire candle, since it is the only growing point of the pine. Only remove up to 2/3 of the new candle. Candle Pinching keeps the plant smaller and promotes lateral bud formation for a denser plant.

Perennials, Ornamental Grasses and Ferns

Regular pruning is the most important thing you can do for your perennials, ornamental grasses and ferns.

In the past, it was normal to cut down most perennials in autumn. This leaves the garden nearly bare or empty, a very depressing site. The inclusion of ornamental grasses, evergreens and semi-evergreen perennials in today's gardens has made our winter gardens more cheery, but it has also made seasonal maintenance more difficult.

What looks good in winter and what doesn't? Often it is the eye of the beholder. If you are unsure, leave the plants up for the winter and see if you like them. If not, cut them down the next fall. The following is a brief discussion of the five schedules for seasonal maintenance and clean up of herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses, and ferns.

Fall Clean Up

The cooling nights of fall, and the eventual freeze, triggers plants to move their food and energy reserves to their root systems. It is after this hard freeze that it's time to cut back herbaceous plants, usually in November for Wisconsin gardeners.

Typically the above ground foliage lies on the ground after freezing or it may be dried up and withered, which holds little winter interest. Cut the dead foliage off just above the ground. If you notice plants that are not fully dormant, wait for the foliage to complete its lifecycle before cutting, as you may be hindering potential food storage for the roots.

Spring Clean Up

Plants that need to be cleaned up in spring are divided into two categories: herbaceous plants with good winter interest and semi-evergreen perennials. Herbaceous perennials with winter interest include Purple Coneflower, Autumn Joy Sedum, and Siberian Iris. Their colors, structure, and seed heads make the garden more colorful and attract wildlife. After enjoying your plants for the winter, cut them back to just above the ground in early spring (usually in late March or early April in Wisconsin).

Ornamental grasses also add winter interest and movement in the winter landscape. If chosen to be left up in the winter, cut them back in spring. These grasses fall into two categories:

  • Cool Season Grass - Grasses that start their growing cycle early, usually when the soil first starts to warm in spring.
  • Warm Season Grass - Grasses that do not start growing until May.

Cool season grasses need to be cut back in late winter to avoid shearing the new growth tips. Warm season grasses can be cut within 1-3" of the ground. A tip to ease pick up and handling is to tie taller ornamental grasses in a bundle before cutting.

Semi-evergreen perennials tend to keep their foliage color in early winter. Examples include Clara Curtis Mum, Lady's Mantle, and Biokova Geranium.

Evergreen Perennials

Perennials in this maintenance group are green throughout the entire year. However, following an open winter (a winter that lacks snow cover), their foliage often looks damaged and requires selective clean up in spring. Using a hand pruner, selectively cut off the damaged leaves to improve its looks. Examples are Bergenia, Coralbells, and Christmas Fern.

Semi-Shrubby Perennials

Other perennials form woody stems and tend to dieback part of the way and must be headed to increase their density and decrease their floppy nature. Examples include Russian Sage, Powis Castle Artemsia, and Tube Clematis. Follow the directions for the "Haircut" Method in the Pruning Techniques link below.

Spring Ephemerals

These plants are herbaceous perennials that have similar lifecycles to tulips or daffodil bulbs. Examples of these plants include Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Virginia Bluebells, and Bleeding Heart. After they are finished blooming in the spring, these plants go dormant or dieback completely in the heat and drought of summer. At that time, they can be cut back to make a neater appearance in the landscape.


Additional Resources

Pruning Techniques

Proper Pruning  


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