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The ABCs of pruning trees, shrubs

One of the jobs landscape professionals train for is pruning trees and shrubs. Still, many homeowners prefer to do it themselves -- sometimes to save money, sometimes because they like it and sometimes because they think they know how and don't need professional help. I'm sure that many of you do know pruning technique, from classes or studying pruning books.

On the other hand, pruning is one job that many people do badly, and it can dramatically change the look, health and performance of landscape plants.

I see mistakes in three areas: Why you are pruning, how you make the cuts and when to prune each plant. Let's test some basics, before you get out there with the knives, shears, clippers and loppers.

True or False?

1. Early fall is the best time to cut back most landscape plants.

2. Make clean cuts in the middle of branches, not close to emerging branches.

3. Cut off broken branches close to the branch collar any time of year.

4. Prune spring-flowering plants like lilacs and forsythias after they bloom.

5. It's OK to cut overgrown forsythias all the way to the ground.

6. You can clip yews and junipers into cone shapes for low-maintenance landscaping.

7. Cut back roses and butterfly bushes hard in the fall.

8. Viburnums and ninebark are some shrubs that rarely if ever need pruning.

9. Prune "Endless Summer" hydrangeas in early spring when shoots appear.

10. When a tree is too tall, shorten it with a clean "topping" cut.

11. An electric pruning saw is the best tool for clipping most landscape shrubs.

12. When your spouse gets ready to prune trees, supply a good chain saw and a ladder.

Answers and reasons

(1) False. Wrong time for almost everything except for safety (or if a certified arborist says so). Early spring is best for most pruning except for spring flowering plants or heavy bleeders.

(2) False. Never leave a stub. Cut above a node or branch collar.

(3) True. Never leave broken branches hanging; make a proper cut.

(4) True. In fall or early spring you'd be cutting off flower buds.

(5) True. They can take (and may need) drastic rejuvenation pruning.

(6) False, mostly. Yews (Taxus) and boxwood tolerate shearing into shapes, but not junipers. And it is all high-maintenance.

(7) False. Wait until mid to late spring, for roses. Improves odds of Buddleia survival too.

(8) True. Many shrubs rarely need pruning.

(9) False. Leave the shoots alone; that's where first flower buds are.

(10) False. Topping single-leader trees is always harmful and often eventually fatal.

(11) False. Save it for formal hedges. Use hand pruners and learn how.

(12) False. Please, no chain saws up in the trees. Hire a professional.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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