Pruning away at winter

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pruning is one of those dreaded events that no one wants to do and you definitely don't want to be out there doing it in the cold.

Yet, now is the time to start thinking about pruning your trees and shrubs. You might wonder why I am saying now is the time to start. That is because there are no leaves to block your view and you will know the exact shape of the tree or shrub.

So let's begin our dreaded task of pruning by discussing the three things you need to know before you begin. Those are why you are pruning, when to prune and what are the proper techniques.

There are many reasons to prune a tree or shrub. One might be because you want to maintain or reduce the size of the plant. Another might be to remove undesirable growth or dead/damaged branches. You encourage plant vigor when removing the weak, overcrowded growth. Yet, another reason might be to rejuvenate older plants so that they can produce more vigorous foliage, flowers or fruits. This can be achieved by removing the current year's old flowers and fruit to promote the new growth. However, the most important reason to prune is to prevent damage to life and property.

The best way to do this is by removing the weak limbs before they break during strong wings, ice storms, or thunderstorms. The other way to prevent damage to lives and property is by opening up places where driveways and street corners are not visible due to large shrubs and trees.

Now that you understand why you might want to prune your trees, you might wonder when a good time to actually do the job is. There isn't a wrong time to prune, so if you need to do it now, do it. Ideally, you want to prune based on the flowering, fruiting and growth habits of the plant. The plant's wounds will heal quickly, without threat of insect or disease if you prune in late winter or early spring before new growth appears. However, you do not want to prune plants that bloom in the early spring. When pruning in late winter and early spring, you can truly see the shape of the shrub or tree and do not have to fight foliage.

Proper pruning techniques are the final topic we need to cover. One quick not to make is that before you do any pruning, please use all safety precautions that you can to ensure you will be safe and that those helping you will be safe.

There are many techniques and terminology around pruning. The one technique that everyone knows is topping. Topping is the removal of numerous, fast-growing shoots. This process may be cheaper in time and money but it does not promote good plant health. Instead, you should think about doing a process called heading. Heading is shortening branches by cutting them back to a healthy side bud or branch that is pointed in the direction you want growth to occur. Try to leave about one-fourth of an inch above the bud or branch. You can thin a tree or shrub by removing selected branches that are weak or block a view. This can be done by cutting just beyond the ridge of bark that surrounds the junction that is the point of origin of the branch you wish to remove. You will want to leave anywhere between a half inch to two inches of the branch depending on the size and age of it.

One final technique which you might care to know about is the renewal pruning. When you are doing renewal pruning, you remove about one-third of the oldest, largest diameter stems, all the way back to the ground over a period of three years. The rest of the stems should be cut back to an outward-facing bud or side branch that is about two-thirds of the way down the stem.

This process should be done on shrubs that are overgrown or don't flower like they used too.

Pruning a tree or shrub in the middle of winter may not be your idea of fun, but you might want to do some surveying now to see if you should do some trimming once the weather breaks. One great resource on this subject is the Purdue publication titled, "Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs," (publication number HO-4-W). If you need help obtaining this resource or have questions or concerns about agriculture, horticulture, or natural resources, please contact your local Purdue Extension Office at 448-9041 in Clay County or 812-829-5020 in Owen County, or reach me directly via e-mail at

Please remember that it is always best to call the office as soon as possible to register for programs due to the limited space available in some programs.

Upcoming opportunities available to you through Purdue Extension include:

* Feb. 2 -- Master Gardener Program series starts, Clay County Extension Office, 6-9 p.m. Call 448-9041,

* Feb. 2 -- PARP and Agronomy update, Clay County Fairgrounds, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Cost $10 for PARP credit,

* Feb. 9 -- Living on the Land series starts, Putnam County Courthouse Annex. Cost $200, 6-9 p.m. Call 765-653-8411 to find out more information and register before Feb. 2,

* Feb. 12 -- Crop Insurance and Market Panel Outlook, Wabash Valley Fairgrounds, 9 a.m.-noon, and

* Feb. 16 -- No-Till Breakfast and PARP, 8 a.m.-noon, McCormick's Creek State Park. Call 812-829-2605 to register. Cost $10 for PARP credit.