February 1, 2013

Bad Pruning Cuts

It is time to show you a mistake I have made in the garden. Joene calls these Garden Oops, or Goops, and you can read more on her site on the first of every month.

My mistake this time was pretty basic. I made bad pruning cuts. And I knew it when I was doing it, but planned to go back and fix things. Then I didn't.

This shows you a bad pruning cut on my weeping Japanese maple. Branches should be cut at an angle close to the trunk. They should not be sticking out an inch or two like this.

This shows you what happens if the stub is left untrimmed. It dies, of course, and it prevents a healing scar from forming where the cut branch and the trunk meet.

I made this mistake on several branches. About a third of the tree, actually.

I was pruning in summer when it was in leaf.  The best advice is to prune woody shrubs and trees in winter with the leaves down, but with a complicated form like this tree has, you really need to see what you've done to the entire leafy shape, and the best time to do that is in summer. There is no absolute rule about this -- pruning in summer is okay to do.

To prune the contorted, droopy branches of a weeping Japanese maple, you have to get under the cascade of branches and make cuts above you, blind, trying to look up into the canopy, with leaves in your face and twigs matting your hair.


You lie down in the dirt and squirm, prune up into the tangle of branches, get up, look at things, get down again and cut away and then do it again. I knew I was just hacking off things without clean cuts, but I planned to get the overall shape right, then go back and fix each cut afterwards.

Oops.

I did not clean up the bad pruning cuts.

I did not do it after my initial shaping. I did not do it when the leaves came down in autumn and I could clearly see the dying stubs all over the tree.

Finally in January I went out and cleaned things up, trimming the pruned branches back to the main limbs, being careful to maintain an angled cut, and not making the cuts flush with the trunk -- you need to leave the branch collar intact.

In winter I could see what I was doing now that the shape was more open from my initial efforts, and now that the leaves are completely down.

This mistake in the garden reminded me of cutting my own hair -- lopping blindly with the scissors held awkwardly above my head, hoping for the best, then using the mirror after each snip to see what had been done.

Awkward bits left over.

And in the end a trip to the hairdresser to fix things.

34 comments:

  1. I wonder how many times I have done this very thing. Poor plants. They survive despite all my "help".

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    1. Lisa, bad pruning won't kill out plants, but it's still not good for them!

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  2. Replies
    1. Lee, if plants could talk.

      Would they cry when pruned?

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  3. Laurrie, you should see the way I botched the pruning of the overgrown for forsythia at the side of the house. It would make you would feel so much better about your own mistakes. I thinned the bush out from the bottom, but didn't take enough off the top. The remaining long and lanky branches then proceeded to flop. What a mess!
    My least favourite thing to prune is rose bushes. They fight back!

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    1. Jennifer, you could get away with pruning a big old forsythia down to the ground I think, then let it regrow. It might develop a better, sturdier shape that way. I like pruning trees or anything with a main trunk, but multi stemmed shrubs are a challenge.

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  4. Laurrie, the haircut by myself..ha,ha! I can imagine the result! When I prune my trees or bushes I always try to prune 'on circle' as say professionals. So the cut must be round and close to the trunk. I try.. but not always got it.

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    1. Nadezda, it is actually quite difficult to get the cut just right, close to the trunk but not too close, and flat without any tears or ripped bark. I don't really have the right tools or sharpest pruners.

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  5. I am trying to imagine lying under your maple tree choosing which branches to prune out. The tangled up twigs in hair is somewhat familiar. Good on you for correcting your mistakes!

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    1. Patty, believe me it was not a pretty sight -- squirming and twisting to get under those weeping branches, then crawling out on hands and knees to see what had been done. No dignity at all, but the job got done.

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  6. I always hope I've planted "forgiving" plants, because I'm about to make a lot of mistakes :)

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    1. Rosemary, it is surprising how forgiving most plants really are! Except for the ones that up and die on you . . .

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  7. At least you took the time to go back out in January to fix your GOOPs ... that's more than many others do. I've seen some really poor 'pruning' in my garden care business. Often it takes years to coax a shrub back into shape.

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    1. Joene, the fact that this little tree is smack on the way to my front door made it impossible to ignore the sticky-out stubs of my mistakes! I saw them every day, and knew they had to be fixed, if only for visual aesthetics.

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  8. I'm afraid almost all of us are sinners when it comes to pruning woody plants, I know that I am. But your're right it helps a lot to prune while the plant is dormant and without leaves.

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    1. Jason, the best time to prune is when the plant is dormant, but I can't visualize how it will look then. So most of my major re-shaping efforts take place in summer when the tree or shrub is leafed out. It's harder to do, but easier to see the result.

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  9. This is something I need to make note of...I have been having so many issues with my honeysuckle and I think due to the fact that we have pruned it at the wrong time...Thanks for sharing

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    1. Nicole, pruning is one of the things that intimidates most gardeners!

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  10. Pruning is definitely an art. Usually I go into the large weeping Japanese maples in March just to prune out all the dead branches but try to save the strategic cuts on live growth for when the tree has leafed out. I wasn't aware of the proper method. Your diagram of the branch collar will be helpful to keep in mind as I make my cuts this year.

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    1. Sue, this particular weeping Japanese maple (Crimson Queen) becomes a big haystack if I don't get inside it and prune. It wants to just sit there becoming a larger and larger heap. I end up pruning it a couple times a season.

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  11. I have butchered more plants than I can even remember. It's reassuring to hear that it won't kill them most of the time. It never even occurred to me that you would have to prune a Japanese maple - they grow so slowly that I always figured I would be long gone before pruning ever became an issue.

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    1. Sarah, this Japanese maple is a pretty fast grower, and it is strongly weeping, so it wants to mound over into a big blob if I don't lift up the lower branches and thin it out a lot.

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  12. I've made these same types of cuts, especially when I'm branch pruning a crepe myrtle and can't make the right cut I need to finish the job. Live and learn! Come winter, I've gone back and cleaned up bad pruning jobs when I have a better view of what I'm doing. It's always a humbling experience.

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    1. Tammy, most of us do cut away at our trees this way. It's hard to make the flat, angled cut that is needed, with branches and twigs in the way. A lot of gardening is pretty humbling : )

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  13. I always apologize to my plants when I start after them with pruners! I have several books on pruning trees and shrubs, but they are so dry I haven't read much of any of them. My worst mistake was pruning too closely. That poor tree is still weeping over it - and me, too!

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    1. HolleyGarden, pruning too close (and tearing the trunk) are actually worse than leaving long stubs of branches. As you say, it creates an open wound. Your poor tree!

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  14. Laurrie,
    I'd be so ashamed if you were to see how I've been keeping my 'Bloodgood'. He's only marginally hardy here in the Tundra, so I have him planted in a sheltered spot way too close to the house. So, I've had to be pretty ruthless with the pruners, otherwise he'll grow into the siding!
    I definitely need to get on the oops blog and get right!

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    1. Sissy, I did the same thing with a Japanese stewartia that I wanted to shelter, so it went smack up against the house on the east side. Too close! Much pruning needed to keep it from coming in the living room. Classic oops for both of us : )

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  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for spreading the word about good and bad pruning habits! Fixing old cuts is among the biggest issues that I see as I take care of my clients shrubs and small trees (Even large shade trees at times). I find myself often giving folks impromptu pruning lessons as I help in the care of their landscapes.
    That said, hand pruning shrubs and ornamental trees is one of my favorite arborcultural practices. i love working with the natural form a growth patterns of woody plants and learning how to prune them the way that they want to be pruned. Kind of a bonding experience with nature.

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    1. Forestkeeper, so many people are intimidated by pruning and see it as a chore --- it's so refreshing to hear from someone who loves to do it! I agree that the trees talk back and give us a sense of how they want to be shaped, it's subtle but they do tell us.

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  16. Hey Laurrie! Just wanted to stop by and say thanks for the post and the info, you've provided some great tips on tree pruning. Remember you always want to prune from the bottom up!

    -Samudaworth Tree Service

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    1. Tree Removal in Brooklyn, I'm glad this was helpful. "From the bottom up" pruning is exactly right, but a challenge when the tree branches weep to the ground!

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  17. just deleted my comment so I'll condense it.

    bottom up pruning in my interpretation can be alternatively called a reducing thin.

    removing the branches and tips of the longest pendulous growth back to the main branch or sometimes stem.

    that way you leave natural growth, thin the tree tighten the crown and gain dappled sunlight.

    being even around the crown is the key.

    cheers

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    1. Lee, thanks for this info. I think mostly what I did was a reducing thin, but snow damage created big broken branches that had to come off too.

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