on Monday, March 18, 2019
Once spring hits, mowing isn’t the only thing you need to worry about. Sure, you have to start a schedule of regular lawn maintenance. But you can’t forget about the trees, bushes, hedges, and other plants on your property. They need care too.
While the hedges, bushes, gardens, and flowers likely fill your to-do as you rebuild your beautiful landscaping after winter, trees are often overlooked. Once planted, most people just let them grow and forget about one very important task: pruning.
Why It’s Important to Prune
It’s counterintuitive, but cutting branches and stems off a tree actually improves its health. The damage of pruning is only temporary. Done right, the tree quickly seals its wounds. The tree also seals itself on the inside, forming a chemical boundary where the branch once was to limit any potential decay from getting from the wound to other parts of the tree. Overall, the tree’s health improves by:
- Stopping insects, disease, or decaying organisms from entering dead or damaged branches.
- Providing more sunlight and air to a thinner tree canopy, which staves of disease.
- Ridding the tree of weak wood, suckers, and water sprouts that siphon critical food and water from healthier parts of the tree.
- Preventing damage from branches growing and rubbing together.
- Saving the tree from tearing and breaking apart when the trunk splits or two or more dominant branches form.
How to Prune Your Trees
The best time to prune your trees is in the transition from winter to spring. You want to trim the branches before they start sprouting buds. If you miss this window, it’s best to wait until the leaves are fully developed. Of course, any time a branch or stem suffers from damage or disease, or dies off entirely, you should prune it right away, no matter the time of year.
To get started pruning the trees in your yard, follow these steps to get healthier trees.
1. Get a set of pruning tools.
Pruning is delicate work. Not just any sharp object will do. You want as clean of a cut as possible — no crushing, no jagged edges — to promote healing, reduce the risk of infection, and create a better seal. Branches and stems come in all shapes and sizes, so you’ll need a variety of tools to get the job done:
- Pruning shears – Bypass hand pruners have two sharp blades that slide overtop each other to cleanly cut branches up to ¾ inch.
- Loppers – Larger than pruning shears and requiring two hands, bypass loppers work the same way. You can get better leverage to clip branches up to 1 ½ inch thick.
- Pruning saws – There are a variety of pruning saws that allow you to cut thicker parts of the tree. Traditional bow saws can cut branches up to a foot in diameter, assuming you have easy access to saw from both sides. Folding saws are smaller and handier, allowing you to cut in hard-to-reach pockets. Pole saws let you reach high-up branches without having to maneuver a ladder around your tree.
Depending on the size and age of your trees, you’ll want a mix of pruning tools. But you’ll probably at least need one in each category.
2. Prune with a plan.
Before making any cuts, take time to size up your tree. Because if you lop off too much, it can do more harm than good. Take stock of any dead, diseased, and damaged limbs and start with those first. Any work to thin the canopy, prevent branches from rubbing, or remove low-hanging branches should be secondary.
For better growth and a nice, full canopy, you actually want to ignore the advice on the best time to prune a tree and wait for buds to appear. The buds at the very end of a branch are known as terminal buds. If those are damaged or slow-growing, they send hormones to the tree that slows the growth of the remaining buds on the branch. Cut any terminal buds that are hindering the rest of the leaves from developing to get a healthier, fuller branch.
3. Make the correct cuts.
The proper cutting techniques are just as important as the proper pruning tools. Leave a branch too long or cut it flush with the trunk and you prevent it from healing. As you prune the tree, remember these tips:
- Cut as close to the trunk or connecting branch as possible without making a flush cut.
- Cut cleanly with smooth motions, especially with saws. Jagged edges are unsightly and don’t seal as well.
- Cut large, heavy branches three times to reduce the weight load and avoid tearing the branch collar at the base of the trunk. The branch collar holds the chemicals that help seal off wounds.
- Cut bigger branches from the bottom first, about a third of the way through. Then saw the rest from the top so the branch falls to the ground easily.
Special Considerations for Pruning Fruit Trees
Trees that bear fruit provide additional challenges. They may spring up with beautiful blossoms but eventually, the branches fill with a bumper crop of fruit. This adds a lot of weight and stress as the fruit ripens, which can be especially damaging for thinner, weaker branches.
Unfortunately, the natural growth and shape of your fruit tree is not always the way that leads to a healthy, fully developed tree. Unpruned, the tree may struggle to grow or stop bearing fruit altogether. So it’s even more important to prune fruit trees every year — it just might not be in the spring.
The milder climate of Tennessee and Alabama supports a wide variety of fruit trees, like apple, peach, pear, plum, and cherry. Each species requires its own special care and timing for pruning.
Apple trees are one that follow the traditional timing of late winter and early spring. February is typically the best time for pruning. A big problem for owners of apple trees is that their tree produces an overabundance of fruit that is too small. For normal-sized apples, thin out the fruiting buds so that they’re spaced at least six inches apart. As the seasons change and the apples grow, you can cut out smaller apples and leave branches that produce larger fruit.
Cherry trees aren’t the best fit for the climate in most of the region, but sour cherry trees can grow well in Alabama. They require less thinning than other fruit trees, and also a different pruning schedule. Sour cherry trees produce fruit early. In winter and early spring, the sap flow is active and can cause the tree to bleed. Wait until July, after the cherries have been harvested, and remove about a fourth of the fruit-bearing branches as well as any low-growing shoots.
Peach trees require fewer tools. You want to limit the height of the tree and keep an open center, so you can use shears and loppers and do your trimming from the ground. Remove any branches growing straight up or into the center of the tree. Peach trees need solid scaffold branches at about a 45-degree angle for best growth. Make flush cuts — another technique that goes against conventional wisdom — to discourage regrowth. Peach trees are more susceptible to cold damage after pruning, so it’s best to hold off until March or early April.
Like apple trees, pear trees are best pruned in February. The ideal shape is the same too. You want it to look like a pyramid. Pear trees require much less thinning. Prune the tree so that it bears an abundance of healthy-looking pears, ideally two per cluster, and the center gets plenty of sunlight and air circulation.
Plum trees are more flexible than other fruit trees. You can shape them like a peach tree with an open center or a pyramid-shaped apple tree. Springtime pruning, in late March or early April, helps prevent any cold damage from an unexpected frost. Aside from damaged, dead, or diseased shoots, you should only cut plum tree branches that failed to produce fruit in the previous year.
The health of your trees is just as important as the health of your lawn. If you’ve ignored your pruning responsibilities in the past, take a fresh look at your trees. With a few strategic cuts, you can have full, green canopies or delicious fruits to round out your beautiful landscape.
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