Friday Free For All: Proper Pruning Techniques

In today’s post, I thought that we would take a look at pruning. This will be a mile high view of pruning since people write entire books about how to properly prune. This is NOT an example of proper pruning:

proper pruning techniques

This is crape murder. And it’s disgusting. Please don’t do this to your trees. If you have mistakenly done it in the past, ask for forgiveness and vow to never do it again. Moving on…

Pruning is a beautiful dance of art and science. There are many schools of thought on pruning and you could read every book and article published and still just not get it. The “it” that I’m referring to is the ability to step away from the tree or shrub and know that it was pruned without making it look like it was butchered. That is the art of pruning. Since we are taking a mile high view, let’s look at some pruning techniques.

  1. Removing broken or crossing branches. This should be done at least once a year with trees and shrubs. Of course if you notice broken branches, remove them when you see them. Look for branches that will potentially cross as the tree or shrub ages. It is much easier on you and the tree if you remove them when they are young.
  2. Topping trees. With trees, there is never, never, never a reason to top a tree. Many people incorrectly believe that they are helping the tree by topping it or that the tree branches will be less likely to fall on their house if the tree is topped. The only way that this is true is that if you remove a branch, it certainly can’t fall at a later date. BUT, the flush of growth that is produced by the tree as a result of the epicormic buds breaking is a hazard to your home. Epicormic buds, or survival buds as I like to call them, are weakly attached to the tree and stand a much greater chance of being broken off during a wind storm.
  3. Hedges. If you are the type of gardener that enjoys a long row of hedges, make sure that you are pruning the shrubs so that the top of the shrub is narrower than its base. This allows sunlight to still reach the bottom branches. If you prune your shrubs so that the top is wider than the base, the uppermost branches will shade out the lower ones and you will end up with the umbrella effect.
  4. Rejuvenation. Often times, your shrubs will need to be cut back to the ground completely. Perhaps they have outgrown their space or haven’t been properly pruned in the past. With rejuvenation, you remove all of the top growth and leave 6″-12″ at the base. While you’re pruning, think about how the shrub will grow in the future and remove any branches that may cross at a later date. Common candidates for rejuvenation pruning include Red Twig Dogwood, Hydrangeas, Forsythia and Ligustrum.
  5. Removing watersprouts. Crape myrtles are famous for sending out a deluge of watersprouts from the base of the tree during the summer. These can be removed any time that you see them without damaging the tree. If you see watersprouts on other trees such as cherries or walnuts, you may have other issues going on. Consult your local extension agent or a Certified Arborist for their opinion.


This is just a small sample of proper pruning techniques. I now realize that I need to do a whole series on pruning to more fully explain the ins-and-outs. I’ll add that to the growing “to do” list here at Mid-Atlantic Gardening. Let me know if there are other topics that you would like to learn more about…leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!



April 13, 2012Permalink 2 Comments

Pests and Diseases: Crape Murder


While crape murder may not seem like a typical post for Pests and Diseases, it shows who can be the biggest pest to landscapes sometimes: people. People are the ones that decide to whack off the top third of a tree so that it blooms more.

Before I prattle on about the horrific practice of crape murder, let me accurately describe what it is and what it isn’t. If you are a neat gardener that doesn’t enjoy the winter appearance of the crape myrtle seed pods and remove them, you are not a crape murderer. If you remove broken or crossing branches from a crape myrtle, you are not a crape murderer. But if you do this:

crape murder

you are a crape murderer and I implore you to stop! I’m not sure why people think that removing a third (or more in extreme cases) of a tree is a good practice. I understand why “landscapers” do it and the answer is three fold:

  1. It’s easier to prune a tree by making a few large cuts than it is to prune correctly. You can murder a tree in about 5 minutes versus the 45 minutes to an hour it takes to prune a tree correctly to remove broken, dead or crossing branches. While the landscaper can charge the customer more for their time, few commercial customers are willing to pay.
  2. It gives an “added value” service to the customer. Again, the customer may not be willing to pay an hour per tree for pruning, but the landscaper can charge a few dollars more and the customer sees that something has been done. If the landscaper is already there applying mulch, it doesn’t take too much extra time to murder a few dozen trees.
  3. Because other landscapers are doing it. I’d like to find the person who started this trend and figure out their logic. Unfortunately, so many “landscapers” are not trained in horticulture and don’t understand the “why” of doing things, only the “how”. They see others doing it and they follow suit, to the detriment of the trees.


If you have been guilty of butchering your crape myrtles, take solace in knowing that many other folks do it too just because they don’t know how bad it is. It’s same thing that happens with mulch volcanoes…people see the landscaper down the street do it so they think it must be the right thing to do.


The first reason is that it’s plain ugly. Crape myrtles have beautiful structure and exfoliating bark that is really only seen during the winter. The silhouette of a crape myrtle in the winter can be the centerpiece of your garden instead of resembling something that your guests hang their coats on.

The second reason is that by making such drastic cuts, epicormic buds are forced to break. These buds lie dormant and the only time that they break is when the plant is put under undue stress. These buds are weakly attached to the stems and their resulting branches are easily broken during wind or ice storms. Also, the sheer number of buds is unsightly and results in a lollipop appearance where there is a huge ball of foliage sitting on top of a stick that is the trunk of the tree.

Another reason is that it’s just not natural. When will we learn that if you leave nature alone, it is capable of amazing things? Sure there are plants that need to be pruned judiciously like hedges (I don’t like them either by the way – too much work!) but a crape myrtle, in Zone 7, is a TREE! It’s not a plant that is supposed to be reduced in size by a third or more each year for the sake of a few more blooms. To me, it’s the same thing as pruning beautiful forsythia shrubs into little meatballs. What’s the point? A forsythia in its natural form, with its long arching branches, is a beauty to behold. And so is the crape myrtle when it is allowed to grow in its natural state with only corrective pruning. Let me know how often you see crape murder in your area by leaving me a comment below or sending me an e-mail to Happy Mid-Atlantic gardening!

February 14, 2012Permalink Leave a comment