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Pruning and planting trees

Step-by-step instructions for shaping your outdoor spaces

Last updated: July 2013

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Learning to plant and prune trees will let you shape your outdoor spaces into a more inviting place. Plantings can shield your house from sun and cold winds while increasing curb appeal.

Proper planting can reduce the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides while helping trees and shrubs survive normal disease and other stresses. Regular pruning will maintain both your yard's overall looks an a tree's health. Pruning can dramatically increase the quality and quantity of flowers or fruits a tree produces.

Proper pruning also helps hedges provide the denseness and privacy you expect, and keep fast-growing hedges at the right length, and prevent damage from winter storms. See the links at left (and our free buyers guides to hedge trimmers and chain saws) for more on the tools and techniques you'll need. Or discuss your bests planting and pruning practices in our lawn and garden forum.

How to prune trees

There are two main reasons to prune a tree: To enhance its health and vigor or to make it grow the way you want. Some specific benefits of both approaches:

Reduce crowding

Trees such as crabapple develop dense crowns over time. Removing some of the twiggy growth crowding the tree's interior allows more sunlight to enter and air to circulate, reducing the chance of disease and pests. The new growth after pruning is also more disease-resistant. Many trees sometimes produce two branches that grow in the same direction and compete for the same space. In that case, you'll want to remove the less esthetic or robust branch to provide room for the other to flourish.

Repair or prevent damage and ensure safety

Broken, ragged branches are vulnerable to various insects and diseases. Branches that are dying, dead, or diseased should also be removed as soon as possible to prevent the disease from spreading and the branch from falling on its own. Trees growing over your house or other structures should be inspected annually for signs of decay so that threatening limbs can be removed.

Manage wayward growth

Any tree can occasionally produce branches that brush against the house, hang too low over a pathway, or block the view from a window.

Increase or improve flowers or fruit

Proper pruning can dramatically increase the quality and quantity of flowers or fruits a tree produces. Pruning a crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) in later winter will produce more flowers in summer, for example.

When to prune

Light pruning—removing dead or broken branches—is safely done any time of year. But some times are better than others for different needs.

To invigorate a tree

Late-winter or early spring pruning is best for most trees, since it allows the tree to concentrate its stored energy on fewer branches. This leafless time also eases pruning by reducing cleanup and letting you see the tree's shape. Regrowth covers the pruning shortly, and pruning wounds quickly begins healing. Late winter and early spring are also when to prune trees that flower in summer, such as crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia), to encourage vigorous growth that produces summer flowers.

To retard growth

Late-spring or early summer pruning is best for slowing the growth of fast-growing trees. Summer pruning also tends to reduce the number of suckers that sometimes grow around pruning cuts. Prune trees that tend to ooze or bleed after pruning during the warm temperatures of summer. These include birches (Betula), dogwood (Cornus), maples (Acer), and walnuts (Juglans).

Hint

In hot-summer areas, avoid removing too much foliage from trees with thin bark, which can become sunburned.

How to prune

Pruning is easy and requires nothing more than a pair of pruning shears to get started. But pruning to solve or prevent problems, to make a tree attractive or productive, or to minimize future work takes a bit of understanding and thought.

Thinning

This is how to prune most trees. The word invites confusion because it refers to both a pruning cut and a desired result. A thinning-type pruning cut means to remove a branch either at its origin or to an adjoining branch. Doing so encourages subsequent growth to follow the tree's natural branching pattern. Thinning also means selectively removing branches to allow light and wind to penetrate the tree.

Thinning large limbs vs. Thinning small limbs

Heading or topping

This method of pruning is rarely desirable. Cutting to shorten a branch or stem at an essentially random point is a heading cut. Heading cuts stimulate growth to occur just below the cut, usually clustered together. Heading large branches of mature trees produces vigorous, twiggy growth that ruins the natural shape.

Hedge-shearing refers to multiple heading cuts on small branches. A hedge's thin exterior layer of leaves and leafless, twiggy interior is typical of the growth produced.

Heading a tree means cutting a branch at an essentially random place. Subsequent growth is clustered near the cut.

Removing heavy branches

Ripped bark caused by pruning off a heavy branch is a common cause of long-term damage. Prevent this by removing most of the weight from the branch first, several inches out from the final cut. Called a three-saw cut, this is the only way to safely remove any branch that may tear bark.

  1. Cut up from the bottom about a foot farther out from the location of the final cut. Cut about a third of the way through the branch or until the saw begins to bind.
  2. Cut down from the top an inch or two farther out on the branch. Once you've cut about half way through the branch, its weight will force it to break at the point of the bottom cut, and the branch will fall off.
  3. Remove the remaining stub. Don't cut flush with the main trunk; that would create an unnecessarily large wound. Cut from the top or bottom just beyond the place where the branch and trunk join, called the branch collar, which is often indicated with prominent ridges of bark.

Getting professional help

Think twice before attempting the following:


Pruning high in a tree without safety ropes


Most homeowners are better off working from the ground, with a ladder and pole pruner.


Using a chain saw


This is especially risky in trees, on a ladder, and whenever you're working with it above chest height.


Call a pro for these kinds of cuts:


Branches that can fall onto a structure or into the street


Wood density varies, but as a guide, assume that a cubic foot of wood weighs about 50 pounds. Any subordinate branches and leaves add to the weight.


Where there are utility wires


Aluminum pruning poles and ladders conduct electricity—a potentially lethal situation if they touch a live wire. Check with the utility that owns the wires; they may prefer to manage the pruning themselves and handle the costs. Or, they may prefer to interrupt service and drop the wire until pruning is completed. If you damage the wire, you could be charged for the repair.


For more information about tree pruning, check with these organizations:



How to prune hedges

A properly pruned hedge is healthier, longer-lived, and better looking than one where a homeowner simply dove in with a pair of loppers. The right pruning also helps hedges provide the denseness and privacy you expect, compared with the bare spots that often result from a subpar job.

Hedges come two basic ways: Formal and informal. Formal hedges typically bear small leaves and are sheared to a smooth and uniform surface to create a solid, usually geometric wall of green. Informal hedges are loose and more casual in appearance. They have larger leaves, are generally wider than a formal hedge of the same height, and are often chosen in part for their flowers and fruit.

Pruning formal hedges

Formal hedges require pruning to control their size and to create a shape. Handheld hedge shears are fine for smaller hedges. Electric trimmers are better for larger jobs, and gas-powered trimmers are best for the largest hedges where trimming is done far from a power outlet.

Regular pruning lets you keep normally tall plants, such as hemlock, at a much lower height without their growing into a row of trees. Most formal hedges need pruning at least once a year, while those with faster-growing plants or in regions with a longer growing season may need it twice per season. Before planting a formal hedge, consider the time and expense of maintaining one that grows taller than you can reach or requires frequent trimming.

When to prune

For slow-growing evergreen shrubs, such as arborvitae and yew, prune in late spring or early summer just as the new flush of growth begins to mature and harden. (A plant is slow growing if new spring growth is 5 inches or less.) Look for a change in color from lighter to darker green. New growth will cover pruning wounds and cover the hedge. Some plants will need a late summer touch-up on a few shoots to maintain their formal look. But avoid cutting into old wood in late summer so that new shoots mature in time for winter.

For fast-growers such as hemlock, prune after the spring flush of growth. Doing so slows growth and leaves a neatly shaped hedge for the longest period. If the hedge requires a second pruning, do it by late July so that new growth can mature and harden before frost.

Prune hedges of deciduous shrubs in late winter or early spring while they're dormant. Prune again in midsummer to maintain their formal appearance.

How to prune

Choose a shear type and blade length based on the size of your hedge. For smaller hedges (18 inches high and about a foot wide), use hand or electric hedge trimmers with smaller blades of about 13 inches long. For taller hedges, use shears or trimmers with blades 30 inches long or longer to extend your reach.

For new hedges, begin pruning in the second season, gradually stepping up the height several inches each year. The early pruning will force the plants to branch low to the ground and produce a mature hedge that is dense and full all the way down. Don't cut too deeply except when rejuvenating. Cut into leafy growth just enough to shape and maintain size. Cutting into interior branches looks bad and, if done after the flush of spring growth, may remain visible for months.

Slope the hedge so that it is broader at the base than the top to allow sunlight to reach the lower leaves. Especially for tall hedges, consider using a template. Allow any hedge to grow at least 1/2 to 1 inch per year so that new growth can keep plants healthy. Once a hedge has become too tall or wide, prune deciduous hedges in late winter and evergreens in midspring to remove at least 6 inches of growth.

Use hand shears to shape a small formal hedge and a power trimmer for larger hedges.

Common formal hedge plants

Arborvitae Platycladus and Thuja

A hardy evergreen 20 to 30 feet tall. Can use informally.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: No.

Common boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)

A moderately hardy evergreen.
15 to 20 feet tall. Can also use informally.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Canada hemlock (Tusga canadensis)

A hardy evergreen.
40 to 70 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring, again in late July if needed.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphylla japonica)

A moderately hardy evergreen 4 to 6 feet tall. Can also use informally.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata)

A moderately hardy evergreen 30 to 50 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: No.

Myrtle (Myrtus communis)

A tender evergreen 8 to 10 feet tall. Can also use informally.
When to prune: Early spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Privet (Ligustrum obtusifolium)

A hardy deciduous plant 10 to 15 feet tall. Can also use informally.
When to prune: Early spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Pruning Informal Hedges

Prune informal hedges selectively with hand shears to maintain or accentuate the shrub's natural shape, to remove wayward branches, and to encourage flowering. Indeed, lilacs are among the many informal-hedge shrubs with showy flowers or berries.

To keep pruning to a minimum, choose shrubs that grow to roughly the size of the hedge you want. That often means choosing a dwarf species or cultivar of an otherwise larger plant.

When to prune

If flowers or berries aren't an issue, prune in early spring before growth begins. That allows new growth to cover any gaps or pruning wounds. Keep individual plants roughly equal in size and shape, shortening wayward shoots. To encourage flowers or fruit, prune according to the shrub's growth cycle. If flowers come in early spring, prune in late spring or after flowers fade. If flowers come in late spring or summer, prune in late winter or early spring.

How to prune

Remove or shorten individual branches or stems. Use bypass hand shears and make selective cuts, reaching into the hedge and cutting just above natural branching points.

Use hand shears to selectively prune an informal hedge. Prune shrubs with late spring or early summer flowers in early spring; prune shrubs that have early spring flowers after flowers fade.

Common informal hedge plants

Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)

A hardy deciduous shrub that grows 4 to 5 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: No.

Dwarf winterberry (Ilex verticillata "Red Sprite")

A hardy deciduous shrub that grows 4 to 5 feet tall.
When to prune: Early spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

A moderately hardy evergreen that grows
25 to 30 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring or early summer.
Rejuvenation pruning: No.,/p>

Firethorn (Pyracantha)

A moderately hardy evergreen that grows
8 to 10 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: No.

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles)

A hardy evergreen that grows
4 to 6 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Japanese holly (Ilex crenata "Convexa")

A moderately hardy evergreen that grows
6 to 8 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

A hardy deciduous shrub that grows
7 to 12 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Rhododendron and azalea

Varies; usually a hardy evergreen that grows
4 to 15 feet tall.
When to prune: Late spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Roses

Varies; usually a moderately hardy evergreen
that grows 4 to 8 feet tall.
When to prune: Early spring.
Rejuvenation pruning: Yes.

Rejuvenating an old hedge

Pruning back to within inches from the ground can rejuvenate some hedge shrubs that grow too large or become leggy and leafless near the base. Do it in early spring, before growth begins. Also be sure plants are in good health to ensure that they'll grow back.

There are two ways to rejuvenate a hedge. Rejuvenating all at once saves time, but means the hedge will be gone for a season or until the shrub fills in again. Doing it over two to three years is less drastic and leaves only some gaps.

Rejuvenate leggy shrubs by cutting back to within a few inches above soil. Do it all at once or gradually by removing a few of the oldest stems to ground each year.

How to plant trees and shrubs

Most of us take planting for granted, counting on nature and good fortune to compensate for any gaps in technique. Yet decades of research have shown that proper planting can reduce the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides while helping trees and shrubs survive normal disease and other stresses. Indeed, many plants live or die based on how they are planted.

Getting them home

The first step to proper planting is getting your new tree or shrub safely from the nursery to your garden. Some tips:

  • Protect leaves from wind buffeting by wrapping them with burlap or other protective material.
  • Pick up plants from the bottom, never by the trunk, especially in spring when bark is tender. This is especially important for plants with heavy root balls, such as those that are balled and burlapped or in larger, 15-gallon containers.
  • Protect plants from sun and wind if they won't go in the ground for a day or two. Cover the container or root ball with mulch if you'll store them for more than a few days. Also be sure the root ball doesn't freeze or dry out.
  • Wrap trees and shrubs to prevent wind damage on the way home.

Soil enrichment: a common goof

Packing enriched soil amendment around the roots instead of merely replacing the soil you excavated seems logical, yet it may do more harm than good. That's because the difference in texture between the enriched and native soil creates a layer, called interface, that moisture and roots are reluctant to penetrate.

Two exceptions to the no-amendment rule: when your native soil is sandy enough so that a moist handful won't form a clod, and when you're amending an entire planting bed, rather than just the soil around the root ball. Amending the entire bed avoids the soil-layering problem. If you choose to amend, don't overdo it; use one-third amendment to two-thirds native soil.

Planting bare-root plants

Bare-root plants usually retain more roots after harvest than balled-and-burlapped transplants. Lack of a root ball makes inspection and trimming damaged portions and encircling roots easier while eliminating the chance of mismatched soil. Less weight also means easier shipping and handling, and a lower price.

Bare-root plants are available only in the dormant season, usually late December into March or April, south to north. Choices include roses, grapes, and cane fruits, and fruit and shade trees, among others.

Before putting shovel to soil, unwrap the roots, trim any that are broken, and soak them in a bucket of water for two to three hours. The soaking helps rehydrate any dried roots and prepare them for the soil.

Planting step by step

  1. Dig a hole wide and deep enough to fit roots without bending them. Support the roots with a firm cone of excavated soil high enough so that the plant sits as high as or slightly higher than it did originally. (Check the main stem's bark for a change in color or texture.) In colder regions, plant grafted roses deeper than they grew.
  2. Begin backfilling excavated soil over and around the roots by hand, firming the soil and holding the plant in position as you work. When halfway done, water the soil to settle it and eliminate air pockets. If the cone settles and lowers the plant's height, gently pull the plant up and firm the soil beneath it. Continue backfilling, watering, and checking the plant height until you're done.
  3. Finish by creating a ridge or berm of soil around the planting hole and water thoroughly. Then don't water again until growth is well under way in spring.

Planting container plants

Most trees and shrubs sold at nurseries and home centers are grown in containers in warm, sunny climates before being shipped around the country. Their chief virtue: They can be sold and planted throughout the year. Contained roots also minimize root loss when transplanting. Also, while heavier than bare-root plants, they're lighter and easier to move than balled-and-burlapped versions.

The main problem occurs on plants that have lived in their containers long enough for encircling roots to strangle each other. Look for encircling roots on the surface of the root ball and avoid such plants. And trim off circling roots and gently roughen and open the root ball to encourage new root growth when transplanting container plants.

Differing soil between the container and your yard can also compromise root growth. Minimize that change by avoiding soil amendments when planting.

Planting step by step

  1. Water thoroughly, allow the water to drain, and turn the plant upside down to slide out the root ball. If necessary, set the container on its side, gently roll it, and tap the bottom until it releases. Then cut off any circling roots and gently open the matted root mass.
  2. Dig a planting hole at least twice as wide and almost as deep as the root ball to allow for settling soil; failure to do that is a common cause of transplant failure. Leave a plateau of undisturbed soil to support the root ball, then excavate around the sides to make room for roots.
  3. Backfill with the soil you removed, watering as you work to settle soil and eliminate air pockets. Finish by fashioning a ridge or berm of higher soil around the hole to guide water to the roots. Be sure the trunk base sits above the water and keep any mulch away from the trunk.

Planting balled-and-burlapped plants

This is the traditional way to transplant larger evergreen trees and shrubs where bare-root isn't an option. These plants are also available longer than bare-root plants and are less sensitive than container plants to differing soil.

More weight and more lost roots during planting are a balled-and-burlapped plant's main disadvantages. That's why you should transplant these plants in fall, winter, or early spring, when their dependence on roots is minimal.

Planting step by step

  1. Dig a hole at least twice as wide and nearly as deep as the root ball. Set the root ball on undisturbed soil that's unlikely to settle further. Then dig out around the sides for backfill and root growth.
  2. Remove the covering over the root ball. If it's burlap, peel it back about half way so it's completely buried and will gradually decay. If it's synthetic, remove it by cutting sections away and rocking the plant to remove the section it sits on. If you need to stake the plant to keep it upright, drive it into the soil next to the root ball, not through it.
  3. Backfill with the soil you removed one-third to halfway down and water to settle soil and eliminate air pockets. Once backfilling is finished, create a ridge or berm of soil around the hole and water thoroughly.
   

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