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Getting out in the yard with the pruning shears is the farthest thing from my mind right now. But it doesn’t matter what I think…the time is right for some serious pruning. As we do most every year, let’s start with the venerable crape myrtle.
Before we do anything else, we should stand back a few feet from the tree and take a good hard look at it. Walk around it. Be the tree. Then, if you still feel compelled to just whack off its top half with no regard for its beauty and self esteem, shame on you. If you have pruned appropriately over the years, you probably don’t have much to cut. If not, start with sharp hand clippers for the small branches you want to get rid of. For larger branches, use loppers. Once you have it the shape you want (again, this should have been done from the time the tree was a young’un) to maintain the natural silhouette of the tree, trim branches back only as far as to where they become the thickness of a pencil. Arbitrary hacking leads to water sprouts and just plain ugly trees during their dormant period.
Of course, there’s other stuff to prune. Fruit trees, for example. Keep in mind when pruning fruit trees such as apple and pear and peach that your goal is to create an architecture within the tree that allows openness for air and light – main ingredients for proper fruit growth and ripening. This time of year, you may be snipping off some future blossoms-to-be but those that are left will be healthier and happier. Remove all the water sprouts and suckers. This is a good opportunity to use that little folding saw in your tool bag to cut off any thin branches that have grown straight up from a larger limb, the water spouts. They’ll never bear fruit and they create mass confusion within the tree later as they grow. Best to get rid of them now before they start sucking up water and nutrients the tree needs to produce fruit.
The hard part of pruning fruit trees is taking out large branches. Again, the step-back-and- look technique should be used. Try to think negatively; in other words, try to picture the tree without the branches you think you want to get rid of. How does it look now, “without” them? The branches you eliminate should open the center of the tree to light and air circulation and, if possible, even lower the crown of the tree. Whatever you do, remember this hard and fast rule of pruning: never remove more than one-third of the tree’s live wood in one year. Once you’ve developed your three-year plan, start with the first branch to be eliminated.
First, reduce the weight of the branch by cutting off half of it. Do this by making an undercut no more than halfway through, not quite halfway up the branch from the trunk. Next, an uppercut from the top, just slightly farther out on the branch from the undercut, will leave a stepped-off stub. You have reduced the weight of the branch considerably. The final cut is made near the trunk, from above or below, depending on what angle suits the tree best. Make this cut just outside the bark collar or ridge, which on many trees is actually a raised ring around the branch. Just be sure to leave the bark collar intact and the tree will heal itself without your help or interference.
Next week we’ll take a look at flowering shrubs and the pruning process they require.