The Art of Pruning


Courtesy of Mike Heath

Above left: Chris Hilgert demonstrates the 3-cut method to Devon Henry and Lynn McLaughlin while Sheriff Danny Glick observes.

I've always been a little bit envious of those people with the beautifully manicured yards. Especially the trees and shrubs. I know I'll never have that because it just doesn't fit my lifestyle or the yard that I want, but I'm still just a touch envious. Although my yard is primarily buffalo grass with a little bit of fescue thrown in for good measure, the trees and shrubs could still use some help. Yes, they've needed pruning for several years, but, frankly, I've been a bit afraid to touch them. Pruning is a task that, once done, can't be undone. And, well, it scared me.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a class on pruning as part of the Advanced Master Gardener Course offered by the UW Extension Service here in Laramie County. I learned more than I ever thought there was to know about pruning. Pruning has a variety of uses. It is used to improve a tree's appearance, control a tree's size, keep it away from structures and electric lines or even for ease of mowing. It truly is both an art and a science. The class was taught by Chris Hilgert, UW Extension Horticultural Specialist along with Catherine Wissner, Laramie County Horticulturalist.

We met at the Archer Complex to begin the class. It was cold and windy that morning. Wyoming, right? What else should we expect? But this is the best time of year to prune trees. Preferably, right as they're starting to bud or just before. It's also best to get them while they are still young. Chris took pity on us, though. Before the class started, he pruned a fair size limb from a tree and brought it inside the barn so we would be out of the wind. The limb served as an example of how to prune. Part of the class was to prune many of the trees and shrubs at the Archer Complex helping beautify the grounds at the same time we were learning. Everybody wins. Using the limb, Chris was able to show us a variety of pruning methods and tools. He demonstrated shears, saws and a variety of loppers. I didn't even know what those things were called until then. Long-handled shear was what I'd always called it. Hmmm. Learned something right off the bat. Then it was outside and time to go to work.

We went to work on some of the newer (younger) trees first. No, he didn't just turn us loose to start destroying trees. The first step to pruning a tree is to step back away from it and look at the tree as it is currently, before pruning starts. He showed us how the limbs wove together and caused problems with the tree or with the landscape. The first limbs we were to remove were those hanging down and liable to get in the way of grounds maintenance. I was actually surprised to see how many limbs were growing down on a tree that was supposed to have the limbs growing up! So, they went away. Then we stepped back again and looked at the tree. The next thing to go was all the little suckers coming up from the roots. These, Chris told us, should be cut down below the ground if possible. And, yes, it will dull your tools. Sharpening is a must. That did a lot to clean up the looks of the tree all by itself. For the most part that's about all we did with the younger trees. Then we moved on to some older and much more ragged specimens. The dead limbs went first since they had to be removed anyway. Dead limbs can be removed at any time of the year, by the way. After trimming away the obvious, he showed us a water sprout. The name doesn't make sense to me, but a water sprout is like a sucker that comes off a limb instead of the roots. It usually grows perpendicular to the limb and doesn't show signs of having a strong attachment to the limb as you can see between a limb and the trunk. These will often close up the interior of the tree and prevent good air circulation. The water sprouts will also rub against viable limbs causing damage and making them more prone to disease and insect infestations. Any limb that is rubbing needs to be removed. At each step, though, be sure to step back and look at the tree. Be sure of what limbs you want to take and why. Remember, once a limb is gone, it's gone.

When taking a large limb, Chris recommends using the 3-cut method. Make the first cut just outside the branch collar on the bottom of the limb. This will keep the bark from tearing down the trunk and opening up the tree to disease and making it harder to heal. The second cut is from the top of the limb on the outside of the branch collar. The branch collar is that area between the tree trunk and the limb that appears to be swollen. Make sure it stays intact on the tree. The third cut is just to trim the first two cuts and make them smooth and good looking. Don't use any sealer on the cut. Let it heal naturally for the best results. It will heal over without any help. These trees did look a lot better after being pruned.

Then it was off to shrubs. We worked on the shrubs around a couple of the houses. I learned that shrubs are a lot easier to prune than trees. There were some shrubs that were too close to the houses and had started growing into the foundations. We ended up pruning these off completely. But, for the most part, we pruned off the dead canes and thinned out the shrubs so air could circulate better. Again, you need to step back and look at the plant before pruning too much. You can always go back and prune more, but you can't undo what has been done.

The last stop in our class was at D-P Ranch and Vineyards. This was my first experience with grapes, but we ended up pruning cottonwood trees and a very old crabapple tree, too. The grapes were interesting. They pretty much show you where to prune, partly by the dead ends and partly by the buds. Growers have their own methods of pruning and are finicky about how far back to prune each spring. However, the great thing about grapes is that they'll grow back anyway. And if you really get carried away, a new vine will start from the root next year. Grapes are pruned to travel along wires, usually a one or two wire system and the vines are tied to the wires as they grow.

The bottom line is that I'm not afraid to prune my trees and shrubs anymore. It's actually fairly easy as long as you pay attention to what you are doing and don't prune too much at a time. Just like life, sometimes you have to just step back and take a good, hard look at where you've been to know where you need to go. And remember, if you have any questions, ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.


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