The Art and Science of Pruning
By Alan Jolliffe
Pruning is the art of training plants. Of all the jobs in the garden nothing causes so much controversy and worry as pruning. However pruning is one of those garden arts which must be practiced - and practice makes perfect.
Pruning is both an art and science, but now there is a lot more science than art. It is becoming a lost art and needs to be revived. Art refers to the final shape of the shrub –how it looks, its balance and its height in relation to plants around it. The science is where to make the cut, how much to take off and prediction of the reaction the plant will have to the removal of a branch.
We prune to grow large flowers, to train the plant for its position, to remove the dead and diseased wood, to ensure maximum air and sunlight reach all parts of the plant and to show off the best features of the plant in the garden. Pruning is your best guess at the time based on your knowledge and experience. After pruning take time out to observe the behaviour of the plants as they react to the pruning. Observe things like, where do the new shoots come from? How long do they take to appear? Are they strong or weak?
The first priority is to make sure your pruning tools are clean and sharp. The basic tools are secateurs and a hand pruning saw. Secateurs are used to cut branches up to 20mm in diameter after that you can use a saw without doing any harm.
Always start pruning from the top down. Starting at the top allows you to shape the plant easily. You can see the shrub and get a much better idea of how it will look when finished. Look for what I call the 'inner shape'. On many shrubs it is possible to see an outline of foliage smaller than the existing shrub. Removal of the foliage back to this shape is a relatively easy matter.
One of the hardest things to do is to hide the pruning cut. The visual impact of cuts can be lessened by changing the angle and position of the cut. Always make the cut beside an existing side shoot or bud so the end does not look like it has been cut off. Try to face the cuts upwards, towards the centre of the plant or towards the back of the border. If in doubt don't cut back to far as you cannot put the plant pieces back on the plant. It is just as easy to come back and take some more material off later.
The easiest and most rewarding pruning anyone can do is to pick the flowers for indoor display or to give away. This way flowers can be appreciated in the garden and inside the house. Cutting flowers off at the correct pruning position will save additional pruning time later on.
Many people are confused about the time to prune many plants. A simple rule is this; "Prune After Flowering". There is no need to remember when plants need pruning. Pruning after flowering means that dead flowers are removed, unwanted fruit is not produced and new shoots are encouraged to grow.
Not all plants require pruning and the same plant growing in different places may require different pruning to achieve the required garden shape. Always consider the individual, plant and its character and its position in the garden. If you do not like pruning then choose plants that don't require pruning.
Pruning is not a once a year job. Don't be fooled by the fact that some other people use pruning as an excuse for a mid-winter cleanup. Think of the plants - they are individuals too and require individual treatment.
The only way to become a competent at pruning is to practice pruning, observe the results, correct your techniques and practice again. Remember practice makes perfect.