March is the waking-up month when the yard and gardens start to come alive after dreary winter days. And with their wake-up, we start getting that spring fever itch. We want to jump in and enjoy the warmer days and bright sunshine.
Nature has ways of thwarting our activity. Warm weather can change in a matter of hours and sometimes there’s a layer of snow or ice on plants. Or there’s rain, and lots of it. It can be perfect during the week, and lousy on the weekend.
Of course, even in cold weather there is work to be done. In fact, the cold is perfect for some spring pruning, within limits.
First of all, you can prune anything in the spring. You may not want to, but technically you can. Pruning spring flowering trees and shrubs such as crabapples, magnolias, lilacs and forsythias will remove all their blooms, and you’ll have a dull colorless spring. However, if you have the equipment out and the tools are sharp, and you say “heck, I don’t care about blooms this year, I just want to manage the plant,” then just go for it. You’ll end up with blooms next year on a healthier plant. But, really, for those blooming in the spring, you are better off waiting until after they are done blooming, just so you can enjoy the color.
For evergreens, shade trees and summer flowering plants (such as hydrangeas), spring pruning can help reduce the plant’s height, direct the growth in a certain manner, and stimulate summer blooms.
Removing growth before the plant leafs out directs all the stored root energies toward new growth. Now, that can be good and bad. It’s good if you want vigorous growth that you can direct in a particular direction; bad if you realize that new growth will be vigorous and you really want a short plant.
Which brings us to a small detour. If you are trying to keep a large bush or tree on the small side, and you have to constantly prune it to keep it in check, it’s better to make just one big pruning cut at ground level, grind out the trunk and roots, and plant a shorter-growing specimen in the area.
And if you think of topping a tree to do the same, top it at ground level and never think of topping a tree again.
Spring pruning can direct the growth, if you prune to specific buds on the stem. Outward facing buds will produce growth that shoots outward; inward buds stimulate growth toward the middle of the plant. Since it’s better to have a more rounded tree, it’s better to prune so the growth goes out.
Pruning may cause some plants to bleed which causes more consternation than it’s worth. Bleeding at least keeps the wound flushed, and provides faster healing. Pruning in the spring also minimizes damage from insects and diseases which aren’t really out and causing problems.
And, when it comes to those sprays that seal a tree after pruning, save your money. The plants do that naturally.
One last comment. Make sure all pruning tools are sharp and sterilized after each plant to avoid transmitting diseases. Sharp cuts, like a paper cut, heal faster than jagged rips and tears.