Prudent Pruning -- 2-17-14

(This week's photo is a snow-covered tree in Hagerstown, MD.)

Once the trees stop trimming themselves, their branches breaking off under the weight of ice and snow, it will be time for gardeners and property owners to start shaping trees and shrubs by pruning them properly. I know it’s time because I see that the orchardists in the Smithsburg area have already started, leaving piles of clipped branches alongside the rows of apple trees.

Pruning fruit trees is an art in itself, because the object is not to make an attractive tree for the yard, but a sturdy trellis for fruit. If you’re a home orchardist, I suggest going to and searching for “pruning tree fruits.”

We’re not talking about fruit trees today, but what’s in our yards. Like a lot of people, I don’t get around to winter pruning because hey, it’s cold outside. And then when the weather begins to warm up and I start to operate on my bushes, invariably some bird has built a nest there and wouldn’t it be heartless of me to disturb that?

Yes, it would be, so now is the time to get going. According to Organic Gardening magazine ( winter pruning is a good thing for many plants because it leaves extra reserves in the root area that can invigorate them for the following season. The OG article contains a list of trees and shrubs that shouldn’t be pruned in the winter months.

The experts disagree on whether to prune maple trees now, with OG saying that it will encourage them to bleed, dropping messy sap on cars and driveways. Others say that because the tree is essentially dormant, the sap will not flow if a branch is cut. If you’re unsure, cut a limb or two, then watch the cuts for a week or so. If there are no drips, have at it.

You’ll need several tools, including a lop shear pruner. Last year I bought a Fiskars compound lopper with extendable handles than make pruning a lot easier. (I am not compensated to mention any brand.) Other necessities: A hand pruner -- I recommend the bypass type as opposed to the anvil version. A bow saw is also a good tool, although its thin blade can get caught in the cut. I also like a folding orchardists’ saw with a curved blade, which can be carried safely in a pocket or hung from one’s belt on a short piece of rope. This last eliminates the situation in which you’re out in the yard, see a cut that needs to be made, but you haven’t brought along a saw.

I also have a curved saw attached to a six-foot piece of what they call closet pole. You can also purchase pole pruners that allow you to lop off branches while standing safely on the ground. I don’t recommend climbing trees to prune them, although I did it myself when I was younger. Professionals have bucket trucks, lifts and sturdy ladders and have done the job long enough so that they know how to do it without falling.

The advantage to trimming deciduous trees now is that you can envision a shape for the trees without all of those leaves in the way. You can also seem problems, such as dead or diseased branches. You might want to do what I did last season and get a roll of fluorescent tape like they use on construction sites. Walk around your property and when you see a branch that needs trimming, tie a piece of ribbon on it. You won’t notice everything, but it beats inspecting and cutting plants one at a time.

The first thing to look for is branches that have problems, such as those that hang over walkways or that hit you in the face as you’re mowing. If a bush is unbalanced, with lots of growth on one side, prune it so that it’s not out of balance. When you remove a smaller branch, take it back to the bark collar, but don’t cut into it. Left intact, the bar collar with grow over the cut end, provided you haven’t left a branch stub that will die back and provide an entry point for insects and/or diseases.

If you have a larger branch to remove, do it with three cuts. The first cut should be to undercut the branch, six inches or more from the trunk. Then cut from the top to meet the undercut. Then, after that branch has fallen, cut the stub back to the bark collar.

If you’re cutting flowering shrubs, remember that cutting them now may reduce the number of flowers in the spring. The dilemma is that if you don’t cut them now, you’ll have to do it after they flower. As for evergreen sahrubs such a Japanese yews, some experts advise cutting them after new growth appears. Others feel that if you allow the plant to expend energy on putting out new growth, then cut it off, you’ve wasted plant energy that might have gone into better root growth, for example.

If you find branches that are crossing, trim off one to eliminate that, because branches that lose their bark from being rubbed together provide an entryway for insects or disease. The same goes for branches growing toward the trunk, instead of outward. And, as we’ve said recently, make sure branches don’t form a V-shape with the trunk. They might look sturdy, but could split apart under pressure from the wind, snow or hanging fruit. When we move to Smithsburg, we had a Golden Delicious tree that split down the middle because of a V-shape crotch near the trunk.

We haven’t talked about safety yet. If you’re using saws or pruners, you should wear gloves, to give you a better grip on the tool. They also might shield your hands from damage should you slip. I don’t recommend anyone climb a ladder to prune or use a chain saw. The cost of calling a professional will almost certainly be cheaper than a hospital stay.

(For the next few weeks, Bob Maginnis will be out of town. During that time, some of his classic columns will be reprinted. If you have suggestions or constructive criticism, please send an e-mail to

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