Originally Published: September 13, 2018 8:48 p.m.
We just bought a lovely home; however, it has been badly neglected with yard care, maintenance and upkeep. We moved to Prescott from Ohio where we lived in a condo. We scan our property and want to enjoy the landscape, but we have no idea what to prune, when, how often and exactly what to do! Help. — Mark and Susie, Forest Trails.
“Any type of grass or shrub will benefit from periodic pruning,” according to Certified Arborist Jonny Schaffer, owner of Jonny’s Tree & Landscaping Company. “Plants that have grown too large for their individual placement in the landscape can be maintained at a reasonable size. If done correctly, and on an appropriate schedule, shape and aesthetics can be kept to a set standard for many years.”
The reasons for pruning can vary, but the task “is almost always done for human needs,” Schaffer explained, citing removal of low hanging limbs over roads and sidewalks; reducing crown height to accommodate a view; creating clearance from structures to meet Firewise standards; improving fruit or flower production; and cultivating plant health by removing deadwood. The latter, he continued, helps allocate energy to more viable branches and promote proper healing of pruning cuts.
There are times and techniques to spruce up nearly any plant. The important thing is to know what’s required and how best to achieve it. We have some fabulous local landscapers who have the knowledge about what, when and how to prune.
The experts highlighted the importance of pruning during dormancy, which could be winter or early spring, depending on the specific plant, shrub or tree. They also identify three main reasons for pruning: safety, health of the tree, and aesthetics. Part of the latter is deciding what shape you want the tree to assume. Pruning is discipline for plants. It should be done from the time they are very young, so you won’t have a problem as they age.
That said, “newly planted additions to your landscape should not be pruned for at least the first year,” Schaffer advised. “Growth hormones in the plant can be thrown out of balance (if pruning occurs too soon), inhibiting root growth and slowing the process of establishment.”
In the second year, start pruning off the younger branches, and over the following years, train the tree to grow into the shape you want.
“Fast-growing, vigorous plants may require pruning multiple times during the growing season,” Schaffer noted. “Landscape and fruit trees should be pruned on an annual to biannual basis. Large, mature trees may only require pruning once.”
Schaffer characterized trees as experiencing frailties similar to humans: “Just like people, the older a tree is, the slower the healing process. Structural defects such as codominant stems, weak branch attachments, and crossing limbs should be identified and corrected when the tree is young to minimize the size of pruning cuts and live tissue being removed later on in life.”
Marc Vetere, owner of Manzanita Landscaping Inc., recommends looking for anything dead, dying or diseased: “Get those out right away. From there, start looking at crossing or rubbing branches. Then, adjust the overall structure and aesthetics of the tree. These principals apply to all tree pruning … I have never found any plant that could not have used a little bit of pruning at some point.”
Pruning can differ by tree or plant type, so know-how is essential.
Elms, cottonwoods and willows can stand trimming any time of year; however, it is important to watch out for bacterial diseases and fungus (including) slime flux and canker worm. They get into running wounds — where trees have been trimmed — and cause something like a person’s blood pressure problem. Sap pressure will kill willows, but cottonwoods and elms can survive for years, despite the unsightly wounds.
Crown thinning establishes a strong branch structure as well as improving light penetration and air flow through the canopy. Crown reductions also can prevent catastrophic limb failures by reducing the end weight of overextended limbs, which can break during high winds or heavy snow.
Here are two general guidelines for trees: one, don’t top them; and two, don’t paint them with pruning sealer. Topping makes trees more dangerous, Schaffer explained, and “paint creates a microenvironment between the paint and the wood. This is a breeding ground for pathogens.”
Some trees bear fruit from existing spurs (older wood), while others produce from tips grown the previous year. It is important to know which variety — or combination — before incorrect pruning ruins a potential harvest. No topping or painting with sealer also applies to fruit trees.
“Hybrid tea roses and floribundas thrive with annual hard pruning,” said Chris Welborn, owner of Vicente Landscaping. “The rule of thumb is late winter or early spring after the buds start swelling. When you prune back, you are getting rid of dead and diseased limbs and promoting growth and future buds for flowering. Just use pruners and gloves for the thorns.”
Look first for dead or diseased canes or stems and get rid of them. Next, scan for “weird shapes, crossing or rubbing, or growing way out,” Welborn said. Then, thin out from inside the rose plant to allow air and sunlight to penetrate. Finally, cut down to 12 or 18 inches, depending on location and desired height.
“Doing all of those things promotes a healthier growth and new buds and gives good shape and size for the new year,” Welborn said. “Roses are pretty hardy. Don’t worry if you make a mistake; you are not going to kill the plant.”
Winter is the best time to prune summer blooming perennials, including butterfly bushes, rose of Sharon and purple sage, Welborn said. Keep perennials in check, he added, but preserve size and shape.
Vetere advised that “you want some foliage — dead or semi-dead — protecting the plant and root system over the winter.”
Pruning, watering, feeding and other preventative maintenance are important to prevent disease and reduce fire risk, which continues to heighten with ongoing drought conditions. Winter weather can be deceiving regarding plant maintenance, Welborn said.
“When plants have gone two months without measureable precipitation, they need to be watered,” Welborn explained, despite the dropped leaves and cold winter nights. Most people turn off and drain their drip system over the winter, he added. If the drip is not operating in winter, the homeowner needs to provide supplemental water when plants are not getting enough rain or snow.
“How much to water depends on the size of the drip,” Welborn advised, explaining that “deep watering less frequently is better than watering less deep every day. Deeper and longer watering promotes better root structure and better health of the plant overall.”
Hiring a professional for pruning offers multiple benefits. They will know what works and what doesn’t. They will have knowledge of landscape plants common to the area and their corresponding growth habits. A professional will have the proper tools and equipment to complete a job in a safe and efficient manner. Disposal of waste materials is almost always included in the scope of work, saving you a trip to the dump. A large, mature tree can create a lot of brush to be hauled away.
The average person can prune, but don’t just grab a set of pruners and go out. You should understand the finer points. Vetere noted that many non-professionals “cut in ways that leave little stubs that will create problems, so re-growth is unruly and uncharacteristic.”
Schaffer offers tips for non-professional pruners, including removal of no more than 30 percent of the live crown in one growing season. “Exceeding this rule of thumb can result in prolific water sprouting, branch dieback, or tree mortality,” he cautioned, while describing how to avoid tearing the bark.
He described the importance of recognizing the branch collar, the swollen area of tissue at the base of the limb. All cutting should occur outside of the branch collar, and no flush cuts should be employed. He warned that “cutting into or tearing the bark in this area will inhibit or completely eliminate the possibility of a properly healed pruning cut.”
Three cuts are recommended: The first one, Schaffer began, “is an undercut on the bottom side of the branch. Second is a top cut just outside of the bottom cut. These two cuts remove the bulk of the weight of the limb. The last cut is the finishing cut removing the remaining stub just outside the branch collar.”
Following the advice of landscaping experts offers the potential of enjoying your property with pride for years to come.
10 Pruning Tips for Healthy Trees
• Thin the crown by removing cross branches or branches with narrow crotches, which are weak because they consist of more bark than wood;
• Raise the crown for pedestrian, signage and other safety clearances;
• Ensure a strong stem by maintaining at least two thirds of the tree’s height while thinning and keeping foliage one-third off the ground;
• Remove any limb for which you need to remove half or more of the foliage;
• Go out on large branches as far as needed to get the weight off on a first cut — followed by a second cut about a foot long — to ensure a clean cut and no peeling of the bark.
• Remove suckers at the base of the tree (the tops also for fruit trees);
• Skip sealants because they could trap disease, interfere with natural healing and promote rotting;
• Disinfect tools with alcohol (not bleach) and avoid using spikes on footwear to prevent spreading bacterial infection from tree to tree;
• Deflect heat — and sun scald — off the base (as needed) with special thick white paint from a garden center; and,
• Fertilize and water all non-native plants, trees and grasses at appropriate times, so you won’t be wondering years out what went wrong.
Remember to tune in to YCCA’s Hammer Time every Saturday and Sunday morning at 7 on KQNA 1130 AM/99.9FM or 95.5FM or the web kqna.com. Listen to Sandy and Mike talk about the construction industry, meet your local community partners and so much more.