This recent warm weather has enticed many to get outside and work on their yards. I’m all for that. In fact, now is a good time to prune many things. Some shrubs and trees probably could have been cut back even before now.
I’m not a big fan of most fall pruning since I have to stare at butchered plants all winter. If severe pruning is necessary as is sometimes the case on red tip photinia, fortune tea olive and a few others, I prefer to do it shortly before spring bud swell. In a month or so the painful sight of ugly stumps will be covered with lush greenery.
When pruning shrubbery take note of any insects that might have overwintered. This spring I’ve noticed severe infestations of tea scale on hollies and pittosporum. Usually there’s a black mold associated with it. Make sure you remove all pruned material from the area.
There is another thing you must remember. Some plants won’t regenerate from drastic renewal pruning. Most narrow-leaf evergreens like pines, yews, hemlocks and junipers will die if you remove all green growth.
Other factors should be considered, too. Most spring-blooming trees and shrubs bloom on the previous season’s wood. Apples bloom on two-year-old wood. This is important, since removing wood will reduce bloom. In the case of apples and other fruit trees that can be advantageous. Too much bloom often means excess fruit set and that leads to smaller fruit size.
Other plants respond to spring pruning negatively. If you wish to destroy this year’s bloom on your azaleas, dogwoods, lilacs or any other spring blooming ornamental prune them now. The flower buds were initiated last summer and shortening any branches will remove flowers. If these plants are overgrown you should wait until the bloom is past. Then you can cut them back to your heart’s content.
Maple trees and other species that produce large amounts of sap should not be pruned now either. They should have been pruned in early winter or better yet, when the leaf canopy has developed later this spring. Trees pruned now will bleed and this sugary substance will be unsightly. It could also lead to a greater incidence of disease and insect damage.
Now is the time when most people prune crape myrtles. Don’t get me wrong, some pruning is necessary and now is a great time to do it. The problem is that removing too much wood promotes a thick flush of growth right below the cut and at the base of the trees.
I suggest thinning to a desired shape and heading back slightly. If little shaping and thinning are necessary growth will be more natural. It is true that pruning crape myrtles can stimulate larger flower clusters. It’s also true that these larger inflorescences catch more rain and branches will easily snap in a thunderstorm.
Gentle thoughtful pruning is best with crape myrtles. I’d no more take a chainsaw to a crape myrtle than I’d assemble a picture frame with a sledgehammer.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).