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Is it pruning time yet?

When and how to prune

By John Fulton

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[February 26, 2007]  We are rapidly approaching the end of the pruning season for most fruit trees and deciduous ornamentals. There are a few rules that are recommended for pruning, and there are several other items that are up to the discretion of the person doing the pruning. One of the beginning items to discuss is the equipment.

Most pruning can be done with three pieces of equipment. The most often used piece is a pair of bypass pruning shears. These shears will cut up to about three-eighths inch comfortably, and they make sharp cuts that don't tear or crush. There are still anvil-type shears available, but their use is mainly in vineyards to girdle grape vine ends. The second piece of equipment is a bypass lopper. Loppers can cut up to about 1.5-inch wood, depending on the type and size. If you have the money, a good set of compound action loppers would be a good investment. The third piece of equipment is a pruning saw. These can come in several shapes, sizes and price ranges. For smaller limbs, a folding or straight pruning saw is a good buy. For larger limbs, a bow saw may be needed. The maneuverability and ease of use are key points when selecting a saw.

The time of year we prune various trees and shrubs is important. Most trees and shrubs that aren't flowering in nature should be pruned between December and mid-March. Flowering trees and shrubs should be done after they flower. Evergreens are best pruned in late June. With oak wilt in the area, oaks should be pruned in December to lessen sap flow, which attracts virus-carrying beetles. And, any branch that hits you in the face when you are mowing should be cut off immediately (except on those oak trees)!

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Basic pruning should serve to remove poor branches, keep the plant growing aggressively and do a little bit with shaping a plant. Poor branches mean bad angles from a trunk or main branch, dead branches, branches that rub together, or multiple leaders. As far as keeping a plant growing aggressively, remember that pruning is a rejuvenation process. Regular pruning also produces more two-year-old wood that produces fruit on fruit trees and flowers on flowering trees and shrubs. Minor shaping and sizing are possible, but major changes probably mean a different plant should be selected.

When making a pruning cut, the key is to cut back to something. Branch tips can be cut back to a bud, and entire branches can be cut back to another branch or the main trunk. When making the cut to a branch or trunk, cut to the edge of the collar (about one-sixteenth of an inch from the other branch). Cutting too close to the other branch destroys the water-carrying tissue, and leaving a stub will guarantee a rotten branch stub (that will eventually rot into the main branch or trunk). Topping a tree lessens weight and reduces size for a short period of time. Within five years of topping, you will generally have more weight and growth than you would have had without topping. If you are making cuts on large branches, it is best to cut once about 18 inches from the main branch, then make a second cut to leave the one-sixteenth-inch collar. This will help prevent the cut branch from tearing other branches.

Hopefully these basic pruning hints will help you get started on the right foot. Remember the golden rule of pruning: "If you think you've cut out too much, you're probably about right."

[Text copied from file received from John Fulton, unit leader, University of Illinois Extension, Logan County Unit]

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