The Garden Patch: To prune or not to prune, and when and why and where

I have been asked (many times) why I studied horticulture in college. The answer is simple – I didn’t – at least not at first. I completed a Master’s Degree in Economics in 1971 (after I’d been out of college for 10 years) and got interested in the Master Gardener program 13 years ago – and it’s been a natural for me! I’ve always gardened, but now I get to help others – what a blessing! ‘Nuf of that! Let’s get on with the business at hand … growing trees and shrubs. Ready? Set. Go!

When do we prune trees? (Depends on why you’re pruning). Winter or early spring can see structural problems. In the spring and summer we can locate dieback. Fall is only to repair storm damage. Wounds heal slowly and a lot of fungal spores are created.

Where to prune is more important! Cuts should be back to a vigorous side shoot or…cut back to just outside the branch collar. NEVER allow topping, stubbing or heading back. DO NOT leave stubs – they heal very slowly or result in abundant sprouting. Also, flush cuts make overly large wounds and expose trunk to decay.

Young shade tree pruning. Prune little if any at time of planting. Remove a few of the lowest branches beginning in year 1 or 2. Take off largest non-permanent branches first. Remove double leaders, taking out the weaker side or fork leaning north.

Selecting scaffold branches (choose carefully, to last 100 years!) First branches of shade trees should be 7 feet high on the south side. Choose other branches for even distribution 8 to 12 inches apart. Select wide-angled branches. Selected branches should be no more than half the diameter of the trunk.

Tree wound treatments (overall, not necessary). Healing is related to diameter growth, keep tree vigorous and the wound will heal more quickly. Wound shaping and trimming are not effective. Brushed on dressings are for appearance only – they do not help the tree.

Spring flowering shrubs (like forsythia, lilac, crabapple, etc.) Prune immediately after flowering…Why? Due to the timing of formation and location of the flower buds. Pruning from midsummer to early spring removes newly set flower buds.

Summer flowering shrubs (hibiscus, hydrangeas). Prune in late winter. They generally respond to fertilizer and watering and needs abundant new growth to produce flowers. You can pinch new shoots and do corrective pruning during the growing season.

Common shrub pruning errors. Repeated shearing at same level – most shrubs benefit by having a few older canes removed each year. Keep the base of the shrubs as wide as the tops.

Rejuvenating shrubs (done when specimens have become overgrown). Cut back entire shrub to 3- to 5- inch stubs in late winter. Use caution when working grafted individuals, cut back to just above the graft.

Songbirds and cover. Birds benefit from dense, shrubby cover near food sources that provide secure nesting sites – evergreens provide the best thermal cover. Unmowed vegetation (weeds and prairie grass) provides seeds, insects and cover. Another item they seek is sunflowers – many new ornamental varieties grow from 3 to 10 feet tall and provide safe feeding for birds.

Songbirds and vines and shrubs. Birds like vines like grape, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, and Virginia creeper as well as shrubs such as cotoneaster, hawthorn, dogwood and the plums.

Hummingbirds and orioles (Need nectar: most trumpet-shaped or tubular flowers). Such as: salvia, morning glory, petunia and nicotiana for annuals and for perennials they prefer hollyhock, bee balm and butterfly weed.

Songbirds and trees. For nest sites they prefer large trees for suspended nests for orioles, cavities for bluebirds and chickadees. For food, they like hackberry, persimmon, cherry and mulberry.

Butterflies (For nectar, similar to hummingbirds). Complete habitat needs foliage for larvae to feed on (Monarchs and milkweeds). Protected places for metamorphosis, damp soil or very shallow water areas and a limited use of insecticides.

OK! That’s it for the birds, bees and weeds! Next week we’ll gossip about the neighbors – or – we can probably find something more interesting like getting back to vegetables. We’ll just have to wait and see! Have a GREAT week. Till next time, hope you are well and happy!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.


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