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Pruning Simplified (978-1604698886)

Pruning Simplified (2019) by Steven Bradley
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“One of the most practical and helpful how-to gardening books I have ever read.” —The Oregonian

Are you intimidated by pruning? Or tired of paying a professional to tackle the task? You can prune most trees and shrubs on your own, and Pruning Simplified shows you exactly how to do it. This must-have guide offers expert advice on the best tools for the job, specific details on when to prune, and clear instructions on how to prune. Profiles of the 50 most popular trees and shrubs—including azaleas, camellias, clematis, hydrangeas, and more—include illustrated, easy-to-follow instructions that will ensure you make the right cut the first time.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

At its simplest, pruning is a means of manipulating a plant’s growth, shape, and productivity by cutting and training it to achieve what you want to happen. To prune plants well is not so much about knowing how and where to cut but about knowing what you are trying to achieve.

The main reasons for pruning are to train a plant to grow in a particular way, to balance its growth, to control the production of flowers and fruit, to maintain its health, and to restrict its growth. A final type of pruning, remedial or renovation pruning, may also be necessary from time to time.

Careful pruning in the early years—often referred to as formative pruning—will allow you to create a plant that is well-proportioned, attractive, and that carries flowers or fruits where they are visible and easily reached for picking. A tree or shrub with well-spaced stems and branches with good angles will reduce the risk of breakage and stem splitting. Plants pruned correctly while they are young are easier to care for in later years. Time spent on training and pruning young plants should be regarded as an investment in their future and as a time-saving, long-term benefit for the gardener.

A healthy plant should show signs of vigorous, active growth, especially when it is young and establishing itself. Most plants will start to flower earlier in their lives if they are allowed to grow naturally. Young woody plants will often produce only a few flowers until they are established. As plants mature and begin to flower and fruit on a regular basis, the production of shoots will slow down, with fewer and shorter new shoots being produced each year. As plants age, there is less annual growth. While leaves are produced on older and on younger wood, it is often the younger wood that produces the flowers.

From the gardener’s point of view, it is important that a plant’s shoot growth and flower production are going on at the same time. Pruning should strike a balance, allowing woody plants to continue producing young woody stems while providing a regular display of flowers and fruits. Often, the timing of pruning can maintain this balance. Pruning plants in late winter and early spring, for example, often encourages the plant to produce lots of new shoots, whereas pruning in midsummer can induce a plant to produce more flower or fruit buds for the following year. Removing old flowerheads (deadheading) to prevent plants from producing seeds will help to extend the flowering season if their energy is not devoted to producing seeds.

As plants develop a cycle of flowering and fruiting regularly, they often slip into overproduction. You have only to look at a rose or crabapple that has been left unpruned for a number of years to see that the more flowers and fruit a plant produces, the smaller they become. Often, too, the flowers and fruits on the inner sections of the branches are not only small but of poor quality.

Pruning away some sections of stems and branches allows you to remove some of the poorer stems altogether. Pruning weak stems also diverts energy into the production of larger, though fewer, flowers and fruit. A good example of this is the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii). On an unpruned bush there may be profuse quantities of flower spikes, each about 4in (10cm) long. A plant that is pruned regularly and at the correct time of year, however, will bear a smaller number of flower spikes, but each may be 12in (30cm) or more long.

Some plants don’t have particularly nice-looking flowers—in fact, some plants produce flowers that are barely noticeable—but other characteristics do make them attractive garden plants. A number of deciduous shrubs, including dogwoods (Cornus spp.) and willows (Salix spp.), have colored bark that is especially bright in winter, and other plants, such as some hazels (Corylus spp.) and elders (Sambucus spp.), have large, colorful leaves in spring and summer. These colored stems and large leaves are produced only from the current season’s growth, and the more vigorous this growth is, the better the effect will be. In both instances, the vigorous growth can be achieved only by severe pruning, often cutting down whole plants to within 4–6in (10–15cm) of ground level each year.

Combating pests and diseases is a vital part of gardening. Often the best method of control is prevention, either before a problem becomes established or even before it begins. Good pruning can preempt some serious problems, and good formative pruning to encourage strong stems and wide angles where branches join the main trunk will reduce the chance of branches splitting or breaking and providing a site where pests and diseases can take hold. Many of the diseases that attack woody plants damage the wood and hence the whole structure of the plant. Disease often enters through dead tissue, such as a wound or injury, and is spread throughout the live, healthy parts of the plant. This is why the first part of any pruning process should be removing dead, dying, diseased, or damaged wood (the four Ds) before the real pruning begins.

If there is any suspicion of disease, look for telltale signs, such as a brown staining in the wood on or just under the bark. Always cut back to healthy sections of branch or stem where there is no staining. Pruning to create a good, open structure will allow a free flow of air around the branches. This reduces the chance of diseases, including mildew, and helps to reduce hospitable areas for pests such as aphids that find shelter and become established in weakened and sheltered sites on plants. Simply changing the time of year that you prune your plants can combat certain diseases. Oak wilt can kill strong, healthy oaks within a few years if it gains a foothold. The beetles that carry the oak wilt disease are active from late April through June in most parts of the country, so it is best to prune oaks in winter, when the beetles are not active. Cutting down tall roses to half their height in an exposed garden will prevent them from rocking in the wind and suffering root damage through the winter.

About the Author

Steven Bradley spent over 20 years teaching horticulture at colleges around England and is now a freelance garden writer and broadcaster. He studied horticulture at Writtle, Cannington, and Pershore Colleges, achieving the RHS Master of Horticulture diploma. For more information, visit him at

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