As we approach the midpoint of winter, spring is quickly approaching. The first day of spring for 2017 begins Monday, March 20 at 6:28 a.m. I have it highlighted on my calendar and an alarm set on my phone because I am not a winter person. One bowl of snow cream is enough for me; I’m ready for buds to swell, leaves to appear and warm weather to arrive. But before those blooms arrive and warm weather sets in, we should be readying our plants for a more productive year by pruning them.
Pruning makes plants more eye appealing, corrects potential problems, keeps plants healthy and strong, and encourages more blooms and fruit. Tools used for pruning include bypass shears, loppers, and handsaws. Ensure tools are sharp and in proper operating condition before making your first pruning cut to avoid damaging the plant. Spray your tools with Lysol after pruning each plant to keep from spreading disease. If you suspect you have fireblight in your trees, spray pruning tools with Lysol after each individual cut to prevent disease spread from limb to limb.
There are four basic pruning cuts, each targeting a different desired effect.
1. Pinching is a “cut” made by pinching off the terminal bud from growth with your fingers. Pinching is pruning technique typically used on herbaceous flowers and vegetables to encourage bushing. By pinching off the terminal bud, the branch, limb, or stem cannot elongate, and will begin to bush out. This pruning technique may also be used on small or dwarf shrubbery to achieve a more symmetrical shaped plant.
2. Heading is a pruning cut made by removing only the terminal portion of a branch 6-12 inches from the terminal bud. By removing the terminal portion of a branch, you are encouraging growth from buds below the pruning point. This is a typical cut used to shape shrubbery or to stiffen the branch of fruit trees, allowing them to maintain more fruit.
3. Thinning is a pruning cut made by removing an entire branch at its point of origin on the main stem at the joint. A thinning cut is used to remove crossing branches, or to maintain the natural shape of a tree. When making a thinning cut, ensure that you make the cut slightly above the collar of the branch to ensure the wound will heal properly.
4. A bench cut removes vigorous or upright growing limbs in the center of the tree that is similar to the same size the limb is growing on. Use a bench cut to open the center of the tree to allow more sunlight to penetrate the canopy. Bench cuts should only be made on trees that have been neglected for a period of time.
Prune fruit trees and grapevines annually in February. Use the appropriate cuts for the desired effects. Never use a pinching or heading cut on apple trees as their fruit grows near the terminal bud. Summer flowering shrubs such as crape myrtles, rose of sharon, butterfly bush, eleagnus, and August flowering hydrangeas should also be pruned in February. Crape myrtles should never be pruned similar to a “flat top” hair cut. Instead, you should remove root suckers, water sprouts, and crossing branches using a thinning cut. Consider the crape myrtles natural vase shape and remove branches growing outside this form.
For more information on pruning fruit trees, you can download the publication training and pruning fruit trees at https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/training-and-pruning-fruit-trees-in-north-carolina. For information on pruning crape myrtles visit https://sampson.ces.ncsu.edu/2012/01/what-is-the-proper-way-to-prune-crape-myrtles/. For a pruning calendar visit https://polk.ces.ncsu.edu/pruningcalendar/.
If you are interested in taking horticultural related classes, the Sampson Extension Service will be renewing its popular Friends of Horticulture program in 2017. Instructional classes will be held monthly, and will begin on Thursday February 16 at 6pm at the Sampson County Extension Center Livestock Facility, 93 Agriculture Place, Clinton N.C. Registration is $5 per class. This program is geared toward Sampson County residents with horticulture interests, and will offer monthly topics such as fruit tree production, lawn/turf management, fire ant control, small fruit production, pecan production, soil testing, tool maintenance, ornamentals, raised bed gardening, pruning, vegetable gardening, and other horticulture related topics. For more information on this program visit the Sampson County Extension website at https://sampson.ces.ncsu.edu/ or call (910) 592-7161.
Brad Hardison is an agricultural extension agent specializing in horticulture with the NC Cooperative Extension Service.