Pruning: It’s a sharp idea |

Pruning: It’s a sharp idea

Sam Bauman

For those of us who are new gardeners, pruning sounds like a terrible thing to do to a plant or a tree. Why would you want to cut back a nice new tree limb or humble a butterfly bush? It’s gotta hurt.

The savants explain that reducing old growth stimulates new growth.

Gardening expert Marianne Binetti says that pruning does not have to be put off until spring. In fact, pruning should also be done in fall or winter.

Three reasons for pruning in late fall

• The leaves are gone from trees and shrubs.

• It’s a great time to control things that are getting too big.

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• It’s a good reason to get outside and enjoy your winter garden. Or maybe just some fresh air.

When pruning, remember the three D’s – damaged, diseased and dead. These are the things to look for when removing branches:

• Dead wood is often lighter in color than good wood. Follow a dead branch to a joint, or “node,” where it intersects with living wood, and take it right out.

• Diseased wood is normally marked by discoloration. If you don’t like the look of a branch, just follow it to a joint and take it off. This will stimulate new growth.

• Damaged wood is the most obvious to detect. Shards of wood and obvious signs of destruction, such as from a windstorm or lightning, call for removal. Salvage as much of the limb as possible and cut at a joint.

Here’s what to look for when pruning

• The branches that you may want to remove on older trees are laterals or side branches that have grown higher than the main trunk of the tree.

• Remove broken branches and those that have grown inward toward the center of the crown.

• Remove water sprouts – those willowy shoots that grow straight up from the branches or trunk.

When removing a branch, don’t make cuts that are flush with the trunk. These cuts make large wounds and destroy the tree’s natural ability for rapid healing. Make the cut beyond the branch collar – that is, the swollen ridge at the base of the branch. This collar area contains the tree’s natural defense mechanisms and promotes the healing process.

When pruning, put the hook of the lopper over the top of the branch to be cut and the blade below because the softer wood is on the bottom, enabling a clean, smooth cut. If the limb is more than 11Ú2 inches in diameter, use a pruning saw. If you must cut from the top, make a quick cut across the bottom of the branch to prevent tearing of the bark.

All right, so pruning is a good thing. And it just so happens that I have a butterfly bush in the patio. Big thing. One expert told me to kill it. Then last year David Ruf at the Greenhouse Garden Center told me to trim it way back. Leery of doing so, I timidly cut back to bare branches about 18 inches high.

Lo and behold, the things boomed back happily. Here’s what another expert said:

Butterfly bushes can get 6 to12 feet tall and have a spread of 4 to 15 feet, but even so, consider pruning it back to the ground in the winter garden. It will re-emerge from its roots in spring. Blooms tend to be larger and more prolific on a butterfly bush’s new growth. Blooms on butterfly bushes can be purple, pink, white, or red, and they usually have an orange “throat” in the center.

I also have a trumpet vine that blew out lovely red flowers all summer long. Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is a climber that produces orange to salmon (mine are red) flowers throughout most of the summer months. This vigorous trumpet vine does need to be pruned back – for containment purposes, said my trumpet vine man. Mine has spread so nicely that I’m loath to cut it back. But I will. Some.

For pruning large limbs, use the three-cut method

• The first cut is made three inches out from the main trunk, cut up halfway through the branch from the bottom.

• The second cut is made from the top, a couple of inches out from the bottom cut. Notice that as you saw, the weight of the limb causes it to rip from the tree. The bottom cut prevents the limb from ripping back to the trunk and creating a big wound in the tree.

• The last step is to remove the stub, just outside the bark ridge.

You may find some trees, such as maples, elms, and birch, bleed heavily when they are pruned in late winter. Don’t be alarmed; eventually the flow of sap will slow and stop.

Pruning involves many potential hazards

• Wear safety glasses.

• Wear gloves to protect your hands.

• Make sure your tools are sharp.

• Prune only those branches you can reach while standing on the ground.

At least every year, you should give your pruners a little maintenance, too. Clean the blades thoroughly with a rag soaked in turpentine to remove any sap, and scrub them well with steel wool to eliminate rust. After that, apply any kind of oil to the blades, and don’t forget to add a few drops of oil to the bolt that holds the two blades together.

Sharpening the blades is a good idea as well to help make pruning easier. Use a small diamond file to carefully put a new edge on pruners. Following the beveled angle on the cutting edge, it takes only a few minutes to rejuvenate pruners.

A sharp tool edge makes a sharp cut. And a sharp cut heals much faster, which means your plants will be a lot healthier. Plus, your pruners will last a lot longer.

Spread an old sheet or tarp underneath bushes and shrubs when pruning. Simply roll the tarp up and take it to the nearest compost pile when you’re finished.

And if you’ve got a fireplace, the dried branches could build a merry yule fire.


Careful pruning is a good thing – an outcome of your desire for healthy, attractive plants. Accept the inevitable (you’re going to become a perfectionist) and acquire the handful of basic tools that all pruning perfectionists want.

Hand Pruners

A variety of compact pruning tools is available for quick fixes and for small twigs and branches within arm’s reach. Many come in small and large sizes and fit in pockets or specially made leather holsters.

• Bypass pruners work like scissors and make the cleanest cuts, but you have to put heft behind the crunch. The business end consists of two curved blades – a cutting blade and a blade with a flat edge for gripping the wood.

• Anvil pruners look very similar to bypass pruners. The blades, however, are straight-edged, not curved. The top blade cuts as it closes down on a metal plate, or anvil, and automatically ratchets to the next power level as you squeeze. These pruners are easier on the hands, but the cuts are cruder.

• The smallest pruning tool is a folding pocket knife. Slip one into your pocket any time you head out to the garden.

Loppers and Tree Pruners

When you graduate to pruning slightly larger, out-of-reach branches, long-handled lopping shears are a must. They extend your reach, and, by increasing leverage, they make cutting easier. Any branch small enough to fit well into the cutting jaws is fair game, but trying to force cuts on larger branches can damage the tool. As with hand shears, there are two types of loppers: bypass loppers and anvil loppers. The anvil loppers are bigger and have ratchet mechanisms that boost their cutting power.


A pruning saw is an indispensable tool for cutting branches more than an inch thick or for pruning in tight places. It’s generally 2 to 3 feet long, and its multifaceted teeth make a deep cut as you pull back. Pruning saws are available with straight or curved blades, double-edged blades, and folding blades that snap into their handles.

Hedge Shears

Manual hedge shears are fine for pruning everything from a light hedge to a challenging topiary. Manual hedge shears are very sharp, so be sure not to rub bare skin up against the blades. Power hedge shears smooth great sweeps of greenery at a shot and save hours of labor on trimmed hedges.

Secrets of Good Pruning

• Give your pruning tools a long life by cleaning and oiling them after each use.

• Keep diseases from spreading by dipping your pruners in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water after pruning diseased wood. Then wipe dry and oil as usual.

• Prune just below outward-facing buds to prevent new growth from crowding the interior of the plant.

• Make cuts at a slant for the most effective pruning.

• Prune plants that bloom from new wood before growth begins – in late winter or early spring.

• Prune plants that bloom from older wood soon after the flowers have faded.

• To keep clipped hedges tailored, prune twice a year.

• Prune hedge tops enough to let light reach the lower portions.

• In snow country, prune hedges to a dome or a peak so they’ll shed snow and ice.

• Never take more than a third of a plant’s growth in one season.

• Prune aggressively in order to get the most growth; prune lightly to encourage light growth.

OK, pruners, man your saws, loppers or pruners. Time’s a’wasting, as Snuffy Smith used to observe.