Do you prune your shrubs back all the way to the ground or only one third of the way? Do you prune just the old wood? What’s the secret to pruning yews and boxwoods so they don’t look like they have have holes? How do I prune an apple tree?
Every new gardener has lots of questions about pruning shrubs and trees, and they should. Each family of plants is pruned for specific reasons and requires different techniques at certain times of the year. For instance, most fruit trees and shrubs need annual pruning to prevent disease, tomatoes should be pruned to increase fruit production , and roses and many other flowering shrubs need pruning to encourage healthy growth and flowers. It can be as simple as pinchng off old flower blooms or as complex as training fruit trees to grow up walls. And of course there are many plants which need no pruning at all. The real challenge is finding accurate information you can apply to your own garden, because pruning done correctly will keep your plants robust and productive for years, but pruning done wrong can be a disaster.
Why do plants need pruning?
Flowering and fruiting plants, shrubs and trees , especially those with big, aromatic flowers and large fruit, are usually pretty far removed from their wild ancestors. Many beloved shrubs like roses and just about every fruit bearing plant or tree has been selectively bred for decades or centuries to produce larger or more fragrant blooms, better disease resistance, larger fruit, sweeter fruit, different colors, smaller size, etc. The wild ancestors of these plants may have been too large for a garden or fruit orchard, adapted to a very specific climate, or may have sported tiny flowers which were not very colorful. In the wild, a plant’s only purpose is reproduction and it finds the most efficient way to do that – it doesn’t concern itself with selling quickly at a garden center or producing fruit or flowers attractive to humans. This forcing by plant breeders of one trait over another is why some of your most cherished plants need a little TLC to keep producing beautiful flowers and fruit, and to protect them from disease or winter weather.
The best resource for pruning
For a quick, reliable, right-every-time source of information, my go-to book is the American Horticultural Society’s Pruning and Training. This is a great reference for beginner through intermediate gardeners, with exact pruning techniques for every common and many uncommon plants, written by the foremost experts in the field. It’s also loaded with illustrations and photographs, which makes the pruning techniques easy to understand.
American Horticultural Society’s Pruning and Training is organized by groups: Ornamental Trees, Tree Fruits, Ornamental Shrubs, Soft Fruits, Climbing Plants, Roses, and includes an introduction to familiarize you with the basics of pruning. It also has a simple to use index, which makes looking up how to prune your favorite plants very simple.
If you love pruning, you can dive deeper into it with the information on how to train plants. It shows you how to espalier fruit trees and shrubs, train shrubs like Ceanothus (California Lilac) to grow up a wall, how to make a chrysanthemum cascade, how to train climbers through host plants, how to train climbers on a pergola and many more pruning and training techniques to keep your garden interesting. Think of this book as an investment, as you’ll learn how to keep your plants and trees productive and healthy.
Buy on Amazon: American Horticultural Society’s Pruning and Training