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Lilacs grow very tall and develop thick trunks after 8 years, or sooner. New shoots that come up from the roots are not given much chance by the older wood, and it is necessary to amputate the old wood at or near ground level. Do not do this all at once. Instead gradually remove the oldest trunks over 3 to 4 years to keep the shrubs producing flowers as the new canes rise to replace the removed ones.
Three tools are used for pruning: pruning shears for removing shoots and small stems; long handled lopping shears for larger stems; and a pruning saw for large branches. A sharp pruning knife is also a good investment for cutting back soft summer growth and trimming around large wounds. Besides these, only hedge shears will be needed if you have a hedge that is formal and needs shearing.
Pruning controls the growth of plants by keeping them within bounds and preventing them from outgrowing their space. Through pruning, you can urge a tree to grow tall, persuade a shrub to stay small or symmetrical, and stop branches from intruding on neighbors or encroaching on walks or other traffic areas.
You should cut back the foliage and stems of perennial plants at the end of their growing season while they are dormant. Pruning can help reduce maintenance problems for the following year as well as lessen the chance of over wintering pests and diseases. Some perennials should be cut back purely for aesthetic reasons, since they can detract rather than add to the look of a winter garden.
Be careful that you don't cut back too close to the crown which can cause some plants to become damaged over the winter. Leave 2-3 inches of the stem above ground.
After a young tree has become established in the landscape (usually one year after planting), pruning really becomes a job of "training". Two general pruning rules to follow:
1. Training or pruning can take place progressively over the next three to five years and
2. No more pruning should take place in a single year than is needed to enhance the shape or structural strength of the tree.
When pruning young trees avoid removing the many small side branches that occur along the trunk. These lateral branches help the trunk increase in base diameter or caliper making for a sturdier tree. Laterals also shade the trunk, and reduce the chances of sunscald injury and act as guards warding off equipment operators, animals and vandals.
Pruning will encourage your plants to grow and produce more leaves, larger flowers, and bigger fruit. Shade trees can be made shadier, annuals can be encouraged to bloom all season, perennials will yield two or more surges of blossoms, roses will be stimulated to bloom until fall, and flowering trees and shrubs will reward you with a beautiful display.
Tree pruning should begin at time of planting. But avoid the temptation to "thin" a young tree's crown excessively. Research has shown that post-plant growth is more rapid and trees will establish sooner if pruning at planting time is limited to removing only weak, dead, diseased, rubbing or injured branches. By removing these obvious defects, young trees are able to use all available foliar resources needed to develop a strong root system and to overcome planting stress.
The best technique when pruning tree branches is to cut the branch off, leaving the branch collar intact. Do not cut the branch flush with the trunk. At the point where a branch joins the trunk there is a swelling called the branch collar, and if you cut just outside this collar, the tree is able to close the wound itself. However, if you flush cut the branch (removing the collar), the tree has far greater difficulty closing the wound and is left open to invasion from pests and diseases.
Some pruning saws, known as “double-edged” pruning saws, have coarse teeth on one side and fine teeth on the other, used for large and small jobs. These are fine in trees, but I do not recommend them for pruning shrubs or pruning in a constricted place. You can easily injure the bark or damage a branch you intended to leave with the teeth on the back of the blade. I prefer a single-sided saw with a slightly curved blade.
If perennials are cut down too early, when they are still actively growing, one concern is that they might put on new growth, use the carbohydrate reserves that were meant for the following season, be hit by a freeze and not return the following year. If in doubt, you are better off to leave the plant unpruned.
Invest in a pair of good durable pruning shears (secateurs). There are two types of pruners: bypass, where the blades pass each other like scissors; and anvil, where one blade cuts onto a flat plate. Which you choose is up to you, but it is worthwhile to pay the price for quality. Cheap pruners will soon get blunt or bent under normal pressure. I highly recommend Felco brand pruners; they may be expensive, but a pair should last a lifetime and the parts are replaceable.
Winter or early spring pruning may reduce blossom on flowering plants or stimulate new growth that could be damaged by frosts or severe cold. If a plant puts forth a crop of suckers (tender shoots from the main plant's roots), you should remove them as soon as they appear.
Summer pruning may result in decreased root growth, which will keep the plant to a smaller size. Thinning should be done either early so the plant has time to recover, or after growth has stopped for the season.
The most drastic pruning of overgrown plants can be used with broadleaf evergreens (hollies, privet, azaleas, boxwood, southern magnolia, etc.) to control overgrown, leggy or scraggly growth or on specific deciduous shrub species such as lilacs and spirea. This is done by cutting the entire plant to the ground or selectively removing one third of the oldest and largest limbs each year. This method is called “rejuvenation,” because this category of shrubs will send out new trunks from the root system to replace the old, unproductive or oversized limbs.
Pruning helps maintain the health of your trees and shrubs. When tree branches break and limbs die, your plants weaken and are susceptible to insects and disease. Just one branch rubbing against another can leave the plant vulnerable once the protective bark is rubbed away. Each time you go into the garden, take your pruning snips along and remove branches that are dead, broken, or rubbing against another.
It is easy to ruin a plant by overly vigorous pruning. Do not give shrubs a “crew cut” unless they are formal accents, geometric or hedge-like. Instead, cut back here and there, shortening straggly growths, letting the shrub have a natural in-and-out habit. Shrubs such as bridal wreath spirea have a natural arching habit and should be pruned this way. The aim is to keep a shrub as natural looking as possible.
You should select scaffold branches that have wide angles of attachment with the trunk, are spaced evenly and are distributed radially around the trunk. Optimally, major limbs should be spaced 24 to 36 inches apart on alternating sides of the stem. Trees such as maple and ash frequently have major branches occurring in pairs across the main stem. Pruning these alternately up to a height of 12 to 18 feet will create a structurally sound tree that is attractive and balanced. Never let one limb grow directly over a lower one.
When training a young tree, first identify those primary limbs (scaffold limbs) that will eventually make up the tree's framework. The height to the lowest scaffold limb will be determined partly by the expected activities that will occur under or near the tree. But remember, during this early development stage it is important to leave temporary scaffold limbs on the tree at lower heights than eventually will be desired. In general, two-thirds of the tree height should be left as crown (branches and leaves).
Fruit trees, such as apples, often get soft growth (water sprouts) on the trunk and limbs. These soft growths should be cut back even with the trunk or limb each winter before they get too big and sap the resources. One or two may be left to grow outward to improve the symmetry of the tree, if this is desired.
Hardwood trees and shrubs without showy flowers should be pruned in the dormant season to easily visualize the structure of the tree, to maximize wound closure in the growing season after pruning, and to reduce the chance of transmitting disease. It will also discourage excessive sap flow from wounds.
Recent wounds and the chemical scents they emit can actually attract insects that spread tree disease. An example is wounded elm wood which is known to attract bark beetles that harbor spores of the Dutch elm disease fungus. Open wounds on oaks are known to attract beetles that spread the oak wilt fungus. Take care to prune these trees during the correct time of year to prevent spread of these fatal diseases. Contact your local tree disease specialist to find out when to prune these tree species in your area. Usually, the best time is during the late fall and winter.
In late Fall, after leaf drop, when infections are more visible, all tree branches containing cankers, knots, galls, or dead shoots should be “marked” for pruning. In most areas, marked branches should be pruned during late dormancy, usually late February to early March. It is important to remove all infected material before fungi become active in the spring. Pruned branches should be burned, buried, or chipped.
Most trees can be pruned in summer when the leaves are on the tree and the shape is more visible. The tree is growing and will recover from surgery more quickly. If major removal is needed, then of course, winter is a better time to prune, since limbs are more visible and you can get to them and remove them more easily.
If your garden has not been pruned in many years, easy does it. With the exception of shrubs, don't try to clean out a decade's accumulation in one season. Work on a 3 year plan, because the shock of too much pruning in 1 year can result in death, rather than growth for your plants.