With fall just around the corner, now is the time to create your list of pre-winter gardening tasks. Adding compost to the garden beds, raking up leaves, and planting bulbs are all easy enough to do. Pruning, however, is a task many homeowners neglect. It can seem confusing to the unseasoned gardener, and it does require some extra effort. However, if you learn how to prune your plants properly, you can help them stay healthy, as well as grow more blooms in the spring.
If you have berry bushes, shrubs, perennials, or trees in your garden, this pruning guide is for you.
Why Prune Your Plants?
You already know pruning is good for your plants. But in what way, exactly, is it helpful? The No. 1 answer is disease prevention. Removing diseased plant parts will prevent fungi, bacteria, or viruses from spreading through the plant or to nearby plants.
Another important reason for pruning your garden is to control growth. Unless you don’t mind letting the bee balm take over your front yard, you’ll want to thin it out and remove any suckers growing along the edges. Doing so also lets in more light and improves the air circulation, helping the plant stay healthy. Conversely, you can encourage new trees or shrubs to grow a bit more quickly by pinching back the tips.
Now for the fun part: tools! If you’re on a budget or don’t need to deal with large branches, you can get away with using just gloves and a pair of hand pruners. Otherwise, you’ll want to purchase or borrow these four basic garden tools.
- Gardening gloves: Basic cotton gloves work well for lighter work, while heavier gloves are better for something rough, like cutting back a blackberry bush.
- Hand pruners: Use this small, one-handed tool for snipping flower stems or smaller branches.
- Loppers: When you find something that hand pruners can’t cut through, a pair of loppers comes to the rescue! Its longer handles give you more leverage for cutting through thicker branches.
- Saw: When you have a tough tree branch to cut, it’s time to bring out the saw. Safety is more of an issue here, so make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for care and use.
Here’s one more tip: Disinfect the blades with a 5 percent alcohol or bleach solution. This step is especially important to follow when you’re dealing with diseased plants.
Fruit Trees and Berry Bushes
Blueberry bushes should be pruned in the spring, but you can prune blackberry and raspberry bushes in the fall. Wait until they’ve finished fruiting — ever-bearing and fall-bearing varieties usually produce a second batch of berries in the fall. You can then remove any suckers that have grown too far for your comfort. Cut back the canes that the berries grew on this year.
Fruit trees generally don’t require pruning in the fall, especially if you live in a colder climate. You can definitely remove branches that are dead, broken, or diseased. When it comes to healthy branches, though, it’s better to prune those during late winter or early spring.
Newly planted shrubs can benefit from a good pruning job in the fall, so long as they’re deciduous. Gardening experts don’t recommend pruning evergreen shrubs and trees. To encourage new foliage, pinch off the tips of the branches just above a bud. Hedge shrubs can also be pruned in the fall (or any time of year) if all you’re trying to do is maintain their shape.
Flowering shrubs are a bit trickier to deal with. The general rule is to prune summer-blooming shrubs the next spring and to prune spring-blooming shrubs right after they flower. However, there are many exceptions to this rule because it also matters if the flowers will grow on old wood. Your best bet is to look up the name of the plant and get instructions specific to that species.
Cutting back perennials is fairly straightforward. If you want the plant to spread through your garden, you can leave the seed heads alone. If you’re thinking more along the lines of “no way!” then removing the seed heads is probably a good idea! You should also remove any dead or dying foliage, so it won’t attract powdery mildew and other fungal diseases in the spring.
Whether you cut back the live foliage depends on the species. Some varieties are perfectly fine to leave alone over the winter, including black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, columbine, and daylilies. Other varieties — such as bee balm, peonies, yarrow, and irises — fare better in the spring if you cut them down to the ground in the fall.
Ornamental and Deciduous Trees
Now we can finally use that saw! Certain ornamental trees, such as rowan, can be pruned later in the fall when they’re dormant. Three deciduous trees can be pruned in early fall, before they go dormant: Maple, birch, and elm trees. You can prune maple and birch trees from midsummer to early fall. For elms, you should avoid pruning between April 30 and August 30 to prevent the spread of Dutch elm disease. Depending on where you live, these dates could differ, so make sure to research your area first.
Tree pruning requires a bit more consideration, and hacking off a large branch can seem intimidating. Remember that you can’t go wrong with cutting off diseased, dead, or broken branches. You should also look for and remove branches that are growing inwards or crossing over each other.
When removing an entire branch, you’ll need to cut it close to the trunk but not completely flush with it. Cut it just above the collar (the swelling at the base of the branch). Leaving the collar intact is crucial if you want the tree to heal properly. If you’re only cutting part of a branch, try to make the cut just above an outward-facing bud. For ornamentals, you can remove stray branches that are growing lower on the trunk.
Pruning your garden takes time, but it is well worth the effort. Your plants will not only stay healthy but also look more beautiful next season.