Let me start by saying that pruning is an art rather than a
science. There are some basic rules of pruning that should be
followed, and the rest is more personal taste than scientific
Starting with the proper tools, you should have bypass
hand shears, for cutting twigs up to one-fourth inch; bypass
loppers, for those in-between cuttings of one-fourth inch to 1
1/4 inch; and a good pruning saw for larger limbs. Bypass,
rather than anvil-type pruners are recommended.
Next, the general rules that should be followed:
- Remove dead and broken branches.
- Remove diseased branches or diseased parts of branches.
- Remove water sprouts -- rapidly growing young shoots
that grow straight up.
- Remove suckers, which grow from roots or at ground
- Eliminate competition between branches.
- Eliminate V-branching, where two branches of similar
size form a narrow V.
- Remove weak, slow-growing, drooping, nonproductive
- Remove branches, or parts of branches, that touch the
- Avoid selecting main branches that grow toward the
direction of prevailing summer winds (southwest in our
- Particularly with fruit trees, do training-only pruning
for the first five years. Severe pruning early on will tend
to delay fruit onset.
Now that we have the rules, we need to know when to do
pruning. Ornamentals with high sap flow rates, such as maples
and sweet gums, should be pruned in December; other ornamentals
should be done in February or early March; common fruit trees,
such as apples and pears, should be done in February or early
March; stone fruits, such as peaches and apricots, are best done
after flowering, since we get a crop only every so often to
begin with; and evergreens are best done in late June.
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When making cuts, leave at least a one-sixteenth-inch collar for
proper healing. On large branches, make two cuts, with the first
leaving a foot-long stub. These cutting procedures will reduce
injury to tissues in the trunk or main branches. Don't bother with
"pruning paint." This sealant will not prevent diseases from
entering, since they probably were present as soon as the branch was
cut, and any sap flow will loosen the covering.
There are a few other things to keep in mind when pruning:
- Disinfect pruning tools with rubbing alcohol or bleach
solution between each cut if you suspect diseases that can be
- Be very careful about pruning apple trees or mountain ash
infected with fire blight.
- Ash trees should not have much pruning done for about 10
years, due to potential borer infestations.
- Expect lots of sap flow this year on most things, due to the
warm winter we have had. This actually makes us feel worse than
the effect on the plant.
For all you grape growers, the February or early March period is
a good time to prune grapes. Train them to your trellis by leaving
three good buds per branch. This number of good buds promotes grape
and cluster size.
A final rule of thumb is this: "If you think you pruned too much,
you're about right!"
You can even use a few of the pruned limbs from flowering trees
and shrubs to brighten the home by forcing them. Just soak them in
water overnight, then place in a large water vase or bucket.
Fulton, unit leader,
University of Illinois Extension,
Logan County Unit]