Justin Newcombe shares some pearls of wisdom to get the most out of pruning back trees and plants.
Pruning can be one of the most unsettling jobs in the garden. When is the right time? What's the correct method? and how much should I prune without killing my precious trees?
Well, naturally, answers to all that depend on what you are pruning. But there are a few key tips to this dark art which will see you well on the way to successful pruning in most situations. These few basic guidelines that I've always followed, have kept my trees on the straight and narrow for the most part.
Firstly get rid of the dead wood: that means any diseased or messy branches that have borer or infestations that have damaged the bark or compromised the tree's strength in any way. This may require the use of a pruning saw or large loppers. Make sure the cuts are angled down so that water will run off the cut and that the tools are sharp so you preserve as much of the bark around the wound as possible. I'm not a fan of pruning paste so I reckon managing your tree surgery with care is important for not causing more problems later on. Make sure you remove all the old material you have pruned off from around the tree; leaving it there will only encourage re-infection.
Next I look for pruning for light. This is important for both fruiting trees, where you want all the fruit to get as much light as possible, and for flowering trees, where you want the tree to flower all at once rather than on the sunny side first. The basic plan here is to remove inward growing stems which will compete with each other. This gives a nice tidy fruit-bowl effect, plus when I think of the image of a fruit bowl I get a clear sense of what my final tree might look like. I also use this approach for roses. Try to keep the branches that are growing at a 45-degree angle intact, as this is the best angle for a branch to sit relative to the other branches around it. Handily, 45 degrees also provides the shape that makes best use of the available sunlight. The fruit bowl shape makes maintenance, spraying, netting and harvest a lot easier. Again make angled cuts, use sharp tools and remove the rubbish from the site.
A word about tools. One thing I've been guilty of in the past is attempting cuts that are too big for the tools I have available. I don't really need to tell you that you should avoid this, as the damage to the tree after you eventually struggle through the limb with white knuckles, gritted teeth and blunt secateurs can stymie the new growth your pruning is meant to stimulate.
Once you have old trees under control the pruning should be light. As I mentioned earlier, pruning stimulates growth and this can be seen around the healing wound as the sap rises.
Be selective in what you keep. Sometimes areas around recently pruned spots can be overwhelmed by new growth.
With roses this flush is often desirable, but with larger trees these young shoots will one day need to support saplings of their own.
So choose wisely, as rectifying a mistake after five years of trying to make it work can feel a bit like losing a limb.
I've learned the hard way.