Making the Cut Benefits Plants

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I saw a post on Facebook the other day of a groundhog exclaiming six more weeks of winter, but he held up an outstretched forearm following with “except you North Carolina, you are on your own!”  Most of you who are reading this know how unpredictable our weather can be. Saying that leads me to admit that spring is literally right around the corner. This time of the year can be busy if you haven’t finished the winter chores for your landscape. I am referring to pruning in particular. We are definitely near the end of the dormant season and, thereby, running out of time for proper pruning. It’s not too late yet, but I would encourage you to prune any of your deciduous trees and shrubs that need pruning as soon as possible. I would like to share some reasons pruning may be required.

Homeowners prune for many reasons. I have a philosophy of what I call 3-D pruning, which consists of pruning in response to damage, disease, and direction. Any time a plant is physically damaged by broken limbs – whether it is a shrub, tree, or vine – it opens the plant up for possible introductions to pathogens. A ragged, torn branch will never heal properly. Making a clean and smooth cut between the damage and the plant’s trunk can afford the plant the opportunity to heal and reduce the risk of disease introductions. However, this cut should be made along the outer edge of the branch collar, which is an enlarged area of a branch right next to the trunk. This pruning cut can be made anytime of the year, as soon as possible after the damage has occurred.

Another reason to prune out of season is disease control. Just like a doctor surgically removing a cancer, suspected plant diseases should be pruned as soon as possible after they have been discovered. Once pathogens enter into the plants’ vascular system, the pathogen will continue to spread, reducing the plants’ vigor and eventually killing the plants. Similar to the disease Fire Blight, you will need to prune well below any signs of symptoms. You need to realize that pathogens may be present in the stem further along than what the external symptoms show. You should also sanitize your pruners between each cut to prevent accidentally spreading the pathogens from an infected limb to the healthy tissue of another.

Direction refers to which way a limb or branch is growing. You can train the growth of a plant with directional pruning. Branches growing inward toward the center of a plant should be removed. Branches that are crossing other branches or crisscrossing should be eliminated. Opening or thinning the canopy increases natural ventilation and reduces disease pressure. Timely directional pruning eliminates removing hazardous overhanging branches later on. Pruning can be intimidating, but a proper pruning cut can increase the plants’ health and vigor.

More information on pruning can be found at the following links on the NC State Extension website:

General Pruning Techniques

Before the Cut

Training and Pruning Fruit Trees

For more information, contact Mack Johnson, Extension Horticultural Agent, at 910-671-3276, by email at Mack_Johnson@nscu.edu, or visit our website.