Thoughts on Pruning

Before I get into the heartwood of the matter I must add this preamble of mine As a "master" pruner this should be a cautionary tale "Never arm a fruit tree with a pair of pruning shears, especially pertinent if your commiting sapshed and are standing beneath. True confession by myself - who once left a pair perched twenty feet above while he descended below to survey the work. Bad karma, or what? Down they flew attempting to do some spaying of their own. The point was well made as it embedded itself to the bone of my left thumb. To this day, I have no idea why I thought to catch it, nor have I any feeling in this digit of mine. Then again, things could have been worse. "

After working over some dogwood trees I was going to write to that topic. As the season progressed I saw a greater need to write about general pruning. Most importantly I would caution all gardeners about the hiring of so-called experts. Easy pickups I say.

Having a pickup truck and a chainsaw does not make an arborist. Never hire someone who stops and tells you

that your plants need pruning and that he will do it right away. Ask and check for references. Best yet … go see their work. If their top pruning is like this pass! New York City has even created a CITIZEN PRUNER license .... Please read! With 28 years of pruning experience I am appalled. That said, our own city licensed
gardeners are equally incompetent, yet they can leave three foot stubs on Garry Oaks and get paid for it..

When hiring, ask them to sterilize their tools. Alcohol, TSP, hydrogen peroxide will do. In dealing with dogwoods, maples, cherries or most other deciduous material the tools should be sterilized between trees. A simple spray mister will do the job.

Start pruning smart. When the plants are young and the future form can be established. Envision the  plant shape and your final goal before you begin.Proper spacing  of limbs should be planed, with an eye to the size of the final girth, NOT the size it s at  the moment.

Time your pruning to the type of tree, weather conditions and ability to spray. Begin with dead wood and everything that is diseased and open up the inside of the tree. Sterilize with alcohol., hand sanitizer, even mouthwash. Use of bleach or TSP  will need oiling of the tool.
Always use sharp tools and make cuts without leaving stubs, but do not cut into the collar of the tree. Always be aware of timing. Although most deciduous trees can be radically pruned in Feb. Japanese Maples and Pines are better pruned when the sap movement is slower. Summer-Fall. Dead wood in Japanese Maples can and should always be removed.

Suckers, water sprouts, crossover branches and strong V’s should be removed. Large limbs should always be cut a foot away from the tree ... then only afterwards cut off at the trunk. The best pruning accomplishment is when the tree does not look like it has been pruned. Hard to do!

I deleted a line about buying the best tools you can afford. --- Not the 2.99 Chinese ripoffs you can buy at the box store. After buying a set and trying them out, my message is even more extreme. AVOID!


Foremost, one prunes to control plant size and to shape the plant to meet the needs of your garden. Sometimes this can be done by reducing the size of the plant or conversely by making it more upright to allow other plants to grow beneath.
Pruning branch and leaf growth back after transplanting can also make up for root loss. Sometimes this can be
overdone. Good staking or in the case of Bonsai, wiring of the root ball can be just as  important. All such interventions should be removed in due time. Pruning will also aid in increasing the health of the plant. This is especially true of fruit trees. Fruit production will be increased. Removing dead or tired wood such as in blueberries will  also create healthier new growth in the next season.


It is hard to learn.
Hire someone who can show you the basics and once shown that can be laid to rest.
Killing or removing a tree is a crime against Gaia.If you have a totally diseased tree or it is in the wrong place, or simply was given to YOU to  bring back to health, consider your own needs first. One has only so many hours  a week to take care of your plants. Concentrate on what is valuable and delete what is necessary. As we grow older, tough love is a must. And no one will  inform Plant Amnesty.
All pruning needs to be done in the winter and or if done at the wrong time of the year the trees will die. Walnuts and some other bleeders might actually be more damaged during winter pruning. Birch and magnolias for one prefer summer pruning, if necessary.
Pruning paint. All surfaces need to be painted. The use of petroleum-based tars is actually harmful to the tree,
encouraging bacteria/ fungi under the surface and prevents the cambium to seal the wound. There are other products on the market and even specific paraffin based paints or Vaseline can be a better alternative. I am going to investigate the possibility of mixing that paraffin paint with some potters clay to make the wounds look more 'natural

There is much more to learn. Timing may be the most misunderstood but always remember that even if you make mistakes it will not mean the plants demise usually, but simply a hiccup in next years growth or floral display and an incentive to learn and do better.

(C) Herb Senft 2009