Really Understanding Pruning

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
Good pruning is like good acting. It is invisible.
Karen Davis Cutler in The Why and When of Pruning (2003)
pruning book coverIf you have heard of George E. Brown, then you may know that his 1972 epic book The Pruning of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers was considered as the standard work on this subject. That was 45 years ago. In 1980 Brown passed away. His book was then revised and enlarged by Tony Kirkham in 2004. The expression “third time is the charm” is a familiar and apt expression because Kirkham has again revised and enlarged this book using a different title — Essential Pruning Techniques: Trees, Shrubs, and Conifers (Timber Press, 2017). This time Kirkham includes beautiful color photos by Andrea Jones that provide clarity and relevance to this definitive guide.

Why does the book title use the word “essential”? Perhaps the answer is because our knowledge and understanding of plants change based on research findings. As an example, applying a tar-like substance to seal a pruning cut is passe’. Today, if a limb is pruned properly it will heal itself faster if no substance covers the wound. This is just one small example of the many changes noted in this comprehensive and up-to-date reference, encyclopedia-like book.

Pruning is often considered the number one task that vexes gardeners. To be clear, pruning is an indispensable part of garden maintenance, and it is also one of the most difficult when compared to weeding and deadheading plants. Successful pruning requires a thorough knowledge and understanding of the attributes of a plant’s growth and flowering/fruiting habits. Perhaps the old carpenter adage of measure twice and cut once is a variation of knowing what you are about to do before you pull out a pruning saw or pruner from your garden tool box. With improper pruning, you may disfigure or set back growth of a tree or shrub. You may even invite critters and disease problems if you do not use the correct pruning approach or your timing is off.

Note that some plants are best pruned in spring and some in fall and some not at all. The key to understanding pruning is to know how the plants are programmed by Mother Nature to express themselves, for example, grow tall, grow wide, need sun, type of soil and on and on. That means you need to know the cultural and environmental requirements of whatever you are planting. Your work as a gardener is to help the plant achieve its natural progression. In this regard, bonsai and topiary take an entire