March 10, 2013

Maine Gardener: With pruning, it's all about the how


March is a great time to prune many of your trees and shrubs -- although getting to them through the snow might be tough this year.

With deciduous trees, it is easier to see the branches when there are no leaves. With spring-blooming plants, you can bring some pruned branches into your house and get them to bloom early.

Orchardists especially recommend pruning fruit trees in March, reducing the number of blossoms so you get fewer but larger fruit when it is harvest time.

But that is not why I am writing a pruning column now. Cass Turnbull, founder of Plant Amnesty and a landscaping professional in the Seattle area, spoke last month at New England Grows in Boston and, probably not coincidentally, has just published the third edition of her "Guide to Pruning."

Turnbull does not necessarily believe that the best time to prune is in March, saying that "when you prune isn't nearly as important as you have been led to believe. How you prune is what counts." And, "My favorite maxim is 'Prune when the shears are sharp.' "

Still, she says, spring is the kindest time for pruning because the plants will grow back the fastest. It also is the best time for "radical renovation," which is the term she has for cutting fast-growing shrubs back to the ground and letting them resprout to create a newer shrub.

If your goal is to preserve blooms, she says you should prune right after the plants bloom, adding that if you are selectively pruning and doing a good job -- not just shearing or topping the tree to get it to the size you want -- you are going to get plenty of blossoms anyway.

I first heard Turnbull speak at New England Grows in 2008, and I have followed her pruning principles ever since. I never saw the first two editions of her "Guide to Pruning," but she handed out enough pamphlets that I got the basics.

Her book gives a lot more information, with entire chapters on pruning shrub types: mounding-habit shrubs, cane-growing shrubs, tree-like shrubs, vines, trees and ground covers. She includes specific pruning instructions for dozens of common plants.

The book, published by Sasquatch Press, is a 366-page, large-format paperback with oodles of illustrations, and is listed at $23.95.

But if you don't want to read the book, I'll give you her basic pruning guidelines.

With proper planting, pruning would be unnecessary, Turnbull says. But people generally buy too many plants for their property, and gardens get overcrowded.

"There is a deep need in the spirit of man to control nature," she said, so people go out and try to keep the plants the size they want them to be rather than letting them grow to the size that the plants want to be.

Turnbull founded her group Plant Amnesty ( because she wanted to stop tree topping, which is more common in Washington state than in Maine. If a tree is getting too large, people will just cut the trees off at the height they want them to be, thinking that will work. She showed pictures of that kind of work done on huge trees as well as smaller shrubs.

The problem with that kind of unselective pruning is that it causes water spouts -- fast growth of a lot of small branches heading straight up -- is unhealthy for the plant, and makes it look ugly. Basically, you end up with a tree that looks like an upside-down broom.

Instead, you should make selective cuts. The first step is to cut out all of the absolutely dead branches.

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