Prune During Dormant Season

The dormant season (December through mid-March) is and ideal time to prune most plants. I do at least a third of my pruning business during these 4 months. Spring-flowering shrubs, such as Rhododendron, Azalea, Pieris, Lilac, Forsythia, etc have already set their flower buds. Wait until after bloom to prune them. Fruit trees and other deciduous plants are easier to prune when the leaves are not present.

The most important principle I have learned from pruning thousands of plants is the type of pruning cut to use. You can prune any plant using this principle. It addresses the most important question: What do I want this plant to look like after it regrows following pruning? There are 3 types of pruning cuts which each produce different plant re-growth responses.

  1. Pruning just above a bud. I refer to this as heading above a bud.
  2. Pruning just above a side branch. I refer to this as heading above a side branch.
  3. Removing a branch or shoot back to its origin. This is commonly referred to as thinning.

When you prune the tip of a branch with many side buds below the cut, you are pruning just above a bud. Normally 3 or more shoots grow back from this type of cut. The plant becomes thicker with up to 3 or more branches where there was one before. This is the type of cut which results from shearing plants with a power clipper. Plants become very thick after 2 or 3 prunings. This is the type of growth we want for formal hedges.

If a single branch is cut just above a side branch, somewhat deeper in the plant, only one branch develops for each branch removed. This type of pruning keeps the normal thickness of growth.

Plants keep their normal thickness and look more natural. I use this type of cut for pruning most shrubs.

The third type of cut removes the entire branch back to its origin. The resulting growth is more open or thinner. This type of cut is used when growth has become too thick. I use this type of cut to thin out extra thick growth caused by shearing. This is also the main type of cut used in pruning fruit trees. This allows plenty of light to reach the lower and inner branches so they will set more fruit.

The “how to guide” on my web site has information on how to prune many different kinds of plants.








Allen Wilson

Allen has been writing about gardening for over 30 years. He is a retired professor of Horticulture.

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