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Spring Pruning Guide

Here are a few tips to take the mystery out of this early season gardening project.

Pruning Apple TreesFor some of you mild climate types, it’s already too late. For us here in high altitude Santa Fe, where the first sign of budding is just ahead, it’s last call. For those of you in more temperate, colder climates… now’s the time to do your spring pruning. Actually, technically, what we mean is late-winter pruning, no matter what season the calendar claims. (It won’t yet be “late” winter, let alone spring, in some northern locations come March 21.) Our job is to get the pruning done before the sap starts to flow, which, of course, depends on the particular climate conditions of wherever we are.

Spring is a good time to prune trees and shrubs because the pruning “wounds” won’t be exposed for as long to harsh conditions now that the growing season is just around the corner. Your tree’s shape and branches are more visible without its leaves. Dead and dying limbs are more easily spotted. This makes finding what to prune easier to see.

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Pruning berry bushes in early spring encourages new growth and fruit yields. Almost all fruit trees are best pruned at winter’s end, ahead of their putting out the first buds, and ahead of the last frost. Wait until after the last frost has passed before trimming rose bushes. Climbing roses are best done after they flower. Other plants that should be trimmed after flowering include flowering dogwood and rhododendrons.

Most experts warn against fall pruning, especially with fruit and other trees. Fall pruning cuts tend to heal more slowly and fall is the time that fungus and other diseases that seek wounds on your trees are at their most abundant. But not all trees and shrubs are suited for pruning in spring. Those that set flower blossoms early should be done in late summer or fall, before the blossoms set. This includes magnolias, azaleas, flowering crab apples, lilacs, and hydrangea. Taking cuttings from these plants in the spring means less blossoms. Have it done early — at the end of the previous season — so the tree can put all its effort into robust flowering.

Planting new trees this spring? It’s a must to prune them as soon as they go into the ground. Consult this general guide from Texas A&M Forest Service (PDF) to find out how and why.

How and what to prune? That’s a question for experienced experts. No two pruners end up with the same product. We all know the basics: use sharp shears or blades to avoid jagged, disease-facilitating cuts; prune at the joints. If you’re unsure, stick with the obvious. Trim all branches that grow vertically from an established branch, all dead material as far back as possible, and any branches in contact with each other; the rubbing opens up wounds into which disease and fungi may enter. Remember: it’s easy to get carried away. For shaping and best general-health pruning to encourage blooming, check out this resource from the Arbor Day Foundation. What’s the best way to learn about pruning? Watch a orchardist or nursery man do her/his thing and have them explain why they do what they do as they are doing it. It’s more than a skill… it’s an art.

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