In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
January, 2006
Regional Report

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Pruning is much easier in winter when the tree is dormant and leaves have dropped. This arborist from F.A. Bartlett Tree Experts can easily see where to cut the branch.

Winter Pruning

In the forest, trees and shrubs lose branches naturally. Diseased and insect-ridden branches break and drop. Low or crowded branches lacking sufficient sunlight to justify leaf production die and break off. We see large pines with tall, dense canopies towering above bare brown trunks pocked with scars left from broken branches.

In our home and garden landscapes though, trees and shrubs benefit from pruning by the human hand. Winter is the ideal time. For large trees and shrubs that can't be pruned standing on the ground, it's best to consult a professional -- an insured arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). But light pruning to remove dead, diseased, dying, overgrown, or crossing branches on shrubs and small trees is within the gardener's and homeowner's purview.

After a deciduous tree or shrub has dropped its leaves, we can clearly view the trunk and branch structure, and appreciate the rugged bark's texture and color. It's far easier to prune a conifer on sunny, crisp, cold days than when sweating in summer heat and tickled by evergreen needles.

Usually our first thoughts about pruning are aesthetic. We want our shrubs and trees to have pleasing form and more flowers. Pruning, though, is more than meets the eye. It is also crucial for plant health and for OUR safety. In a yard or garden, dead or dying branches can break and fall unexpectedly, causing personal injury and property damage.

Light pruning is aesthetic and functional. Besides clearing out damaged and dead wood from an overgrown azalea, for example, light pruning allows more sunlight and air to penetrate the shrub's interior. More rainwater can reach the plant's roots.

Light pruning is less daunting than trying to shape a tree or shrub. If you can tell a pliable live branch (usually white inside) from a crackling dead or damaged branch (black, brown, broken), you can do light pruning. The key is using the right tools and making a clean cut at a 45-degree angle just above the juncture of branch and trunk or branch and branch. That juncture, called a node, is an area of active cell growth where the plant can seal the pruning wound.

In the interest of full disclosure, pruning is my favorite "immediate gratification" job. I suit up with denim Pruning Pouch cinched around my waist, garden gloves in hand, protective glasses in pocket. In the Pruning Pouch pockets are two pairs of sharpened bypass hand pruners (small- and large-bladed), small and large folding pruning saws, and a small rag and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol to disinfect tool blades. Nearby I hang or carefully lay three different-sized, sharpened loppers. When trapped by prickly holly leaves or on my knees under a dense rhododendron, I want every tool within arm's reach.

Well-sharpened, disinfected tools are crucial. Pruning IS wounding the plant. But unless the weather is frigid, healthy plants produce antimicrobial chemicals and new cells to protect the wound. Making a clean pruning cut damages fewer plant cells and requires less plant energy for repair.

After picking up the debris and disinfecting my tool blades, I stand back and take note. It's satisfying to see how I've improved the appearance of the plant. And I'm almost disappointed I won't have to do it again next year because a good pruning job lasts for a year or more, with the occasional clip of an errant crossing branch.


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