You’ve seen the crimes against conifers, the deadly sins committed on deciduous trees and shrubs. Forsythias pruned like lollypops, spireas shaped like Sponge Bob, poor apple trees looking like they just stepped out of the Wizard of Oz.
These barbaric attempts at pruning could be avoided by consulting a good book, or taking a hands-on course that covers the basics of pruning.
Next to learning to drive a Formula Ford at Mosport, the most exhilarating course I took was a pruning workshop at the Royal Botanical Gardens at least 20 years ago.
In those days, students were directed to the hedge collection and allowed to watch the teacher tangle with yews, hemlocks, burning bush, pines and lilacs. It was as riveting as watching a hip replacement on the Discovery Channel.
Over the years from reading, taking courses and interviewing people I’ve learned some good approaches.
First of all, pruning is about the basics, removing dead wood, weak wood and overcrowded branches.
Be observant, see how plants grow, see what happens when you make a cut. The location of the cut can direct new growth.
Some plants are notorious for becoming a blobby mess. Spirea often packs a lot of deadwood. But prune it in early spring and you’ll be rewarded with a healthier plant that produces bigger flowers.
Few things are more poetic than a properly pruned fruit tree but it takes time and you can’t shape a tree in one season. You have to be patient.
Apple trees often produce vigorous growth called water sprouts. One of them might be in the right position to fill in a gap, to make a good branch. If you cut all of them off, the tree goes nuts producing rampant growth.
The classic approach is to prune summer flowering shrubs and trees now, and to prune the spring bloomers after they flower.
But if a lilac is wildly overgrown, or a forsythia is a frightening shape, pruning now is permissible. Forsythia can really be hacked and slashed. Some books even suggest cutting forsythia down to 3 inches, and then thinning and shaping the new growth as needed.
Pruning is like carpentry, there is the rough stuff and then the fine work. I was advised at the RBG, that while pruning, stop, stand back, look at the shape, from all angles and then continue pruning.
Delightful shapes, better flowering, healthier plants, there are many urgent reasons to become a fearless pruner.