No two people prune the same making it an interesting and sometimes fiery topic of conversation amongst gardeners. For some, pruning is ”a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”; these timid pruners are filled with self-doubt and would rather retreat to the simplicity of a nice comforting patch of soil than use a pair of secateurs. For others, the answer is simple; prune everything, prune it hard, often and in a heavy-handed confident way. As you can imagine, the perfect pruner sits between these two styles.
“Wander, ponder; and prune,” the old saying goes. Let’s look at each of these in detail.
Wander around your garden and identify the plants that could benefit from pruning. There are many factors that may motivate you to pick up your secateurs, loppers or saw; a plant might be outgrowing its allocated spot and is creating problems of space and sunlight for its neighbours or you may want to increase the quality and size of flowers, fruits, leaves and stems. Another reason could be style; you may want to transform a bush into a topiary or train a fruit tree into an espalier or fan.
Another simple motivation could be the love you have for your plants and wanting them to live a long and healthy life. Whatever the reason, keep in mind the golden rule of seasonal pruning; generally, winter pruning promotes growth whilst summer pruning will do the opposite. If tree pruning is done during the dormant period, it will have an invigorating and energising effect whilst pruning done during peak growth time will result in slower growth due to the reduction in leaves therefore reduction in nutrients.
Maintenance is key for the long service life of your pruning tools so keep them sharp and well oiled. Regular care of your tools will keep them at their peak and will save you time and money both on tools and plants in the future.
While on the topic of cleanliness, it is vital to clean secateurs and other pruning tools between plants to avoid the spread of disease-causing bacteria and spores from one plant to another. You may also want to do this when removed a branch that appears diseased or has died in case it has been infected by a fungal disease. The best way to do so is to wipe the blades with either bleach, alcohol wipes or bottled methylated spirits (10%) then rinse.
When pruning stems, the perfect spot is where the bud or leaf emerges. Stem structures can be arranged in two patterns; alternate or opposite. For alternate buds (think roses), the best location for the cut is just above an outward-facing bud at a 45 degree angle downwards away from it. This will avoid water pooling on the top of the cut stem and on the bud itself. The base of your bud should more or less be in alignment with the base of your cut on the opposite side. If instead, you are faced with an opposite patterned plant with the two shoots positioned exactly opposite each other on the stem (think basil) then the best cut is straight across above the junction of the two shoots where there are two healthy buds just waiting for their turn to grow.
RULE #4: Don’t forget the undercut!
The key to good pruning is to keep damages down to a minimum; keeping the cut area as small as possible helps with this. Exposing the tree’s vulnerable underside by mistakenly ripping off bark will increase the likelihood of bacteria, spores and other disease-inducing visitors entering the tree’s delicate inner structure. When removing a large branch from a tree, the first step is to take off smaller branches using secateurs and loppers. Once you are down to the main branch that you wish to remove, you will need to saw a small undercut before starting your main cut on the top of the branch. The weight of a large branch may cause it to fall before the main cut is complete and the undercut will avoid the branch taking part of the bark or cambium layers along with it. Remember to follow the angle of the collar wrinkle when sawing since that is where the special healing cells live.
RULE #5: Don’t prune just to make a plant fit.
If you find yourself constantly pruning a plant to make it fit where you want it to then perhaps this plant is not the best choice for that specific location. You may need to rethink the layout of your garden bed and even relocate the plant to a better spot somewhere else in the garden where it has ample room to grow without disturbing its neighbouring plants or other landscape elements such as walls and fences.
RULE #6: End with kindness
Pruning makes your plants momentarily vulnerable so make sure to water, feed and mulch them well once you are done.