The Kindest Cut

No one does any pruning in the wild. Not unless you consider the effects of high winds and branches ripped off by moose-in-rut pruning. But the city is a different kind of place. We have small spaces and big dreams. We want tidy even if our stated goal is low maintenance.

So the conversation eventually comes around to pruning. “This sounds like marriage therapy” called out a heckler at a talk I was giving earlier this month. The question being asked by the wife about her husband’s pruning sounded negative. The husband, sitting next to the wife was a bit defensive. But in the end everyone really had the same question. They wanted to know: when is the right time to prune?

So in turn I asked right back: what are you trying to prune? Evergreens can be pruned any time they are not stiff and frozen. Really. This means any time we get a Chinook or feel like bringing some greens into the house or getting the juniper branches trimmed away from our sidewalks, we can do it.

But — and this is a big but — flowering shrubs are completely different. Anything that blooms on old wood had its flower buds built last summer. Everything finished blooming or about to bloom this spring can be pruned now. Cherries, bright pink ornamental plums, apples, white spring blooming spirea, lilacs, forsythia, highbush cranberry, nannyberry, apples and pears all bloom on old wood. A few roses will bloom in June if they have oldwood flower buds but many bloom on new wood and won’t start flowering until later in June. If the husband in question pruned old wood bloomers — such as lilacs — in fall or in winter he would remove all the flower buds accidentally.

It is wise to remember the old adage: prune in June. Do this to remove old and lanky stems, parts of shrubs that have become heavy and woody or just the tips of plants to bring them into some order and make them fit into your garden better. While pruning is never a good alternative to good design it is better than dodging your way into the house through the overgrowth.

So prune after spring bloom and after the plant is fully leafed out. Or quite simply: prune in June. Or save yourself the marriage counseling fees and hire an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) Certified Arborist and leave it to the experts.

Balzer speaks and writes about gardening, tweets @NoGuffGardener and blogs at www.gardenguru.net.

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