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Tips help when pruning trees and shrubs


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001

Editor's note: Brenda Smith is a graduate of the Extension Service Master Gardener class. This will be an occasional column featuring information specific to the area.

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Part I: You may not be sure when or why you have to prune your plants. A proper, routine pruning is a method to keep the landscape both pretty and neat in your yard.

Don't wait until the plants grow taller and bigger. Overgrown plants could be a leggy nuisance, with little foliage close to the ground, and are harder to prune to the desired size without hurting the plants severely. The right way to prune overgrown plants is to prune them back gradually over several years.

Basic pruning tools include a hand pruner for small branch and twig cleanup, loppers for branches up to a half-inch in diameter, a pruning saw for larger branches and hedge shears for trimming closely clipped formal hedges only. Both shears and saws on poles are practical and handy for pruning difficult-to-reach branches. Be sure the tools are kept sharp. They will cut more easily without injuring surrounding tissue. Injured tissues are susceptible to disease and decay, which could lead to long-term health problems for the trees.

Oaks, maples, hickories and other large shade trees are now in their dormant season. This is the best time to prune dead, diseased or broken branches or twigs. To do this, look at the tree form, select the positioned permanent branches and cut off or shorten the others. The permanent branches should be spaced between 6 and 24 inches apart on the trunk, depending on the kind and size of the tree. A dogwood's space is about 6 inches, while the oak's best spacing is 18 to 24 inches. Also remove the fast-growing suckers at the base and along tree trunks or on large, interior limbs.

Be cautious when working with large branches, which may be too heavy to hold with your hands and tools. University of Florida Circular 853 offers the following instructions for removing large branches in three steps:

Make three separate cuts to prevent trunk bark stripping. The first cut is made on the lower side of the branch about 15 inches away from the trunk and as far up through the branch as possible before its weight binds the saw. This prevents the bark from stripping when you make the second cut, which should be downward from the top of the branch, about 18 inches from the main trunk, to remove the branch completely. The third cut will be to remove the stub. The right way is to cut from the top on the outside of the branch-bark ridge (the spot where the expanding branch and the expanding trunk push up bark between them) and end just outside of the branch collar swelling on the lower side of the branch. (The area around and between the branch-bark ridge and the bottom swelling on the underside of the branch is called the branch collar.) Never cut below the branch collar because flush cuts will injure the trunk. Research by the University of Florida has shown that cutting below the branch collar causes extensive trunk decay because that wood is actually part of the trunk.

Younger trees should be pruned to a single leader (a stem); do not remove them entirely. Most of them would grow in the right form when they are young, but in some species, the growth habit would change to a multileader spreading form as they mature. If you see narrow forks or branches leaving the trunk at acute angles, they should be removed as soon as possible. Temporary lower branches can be pruned about 8 inches from the trunk when the tree grows branches that are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The tree will grow faster and have a thicker trunk with better protection from sunburn and vandalism.

Hedges should be pruned in a pyramid shape with a flat top so lower branches will get more sun than the narrow base.Improper pruning will worsen this condition with age, resulting in sparse growth at ground level and an unattractive "cat eyes" hedge, which does not give desired privacy. Flowering hedges should be pruned after they have bloomed because more frequent shearing would reduce the number of the blooms. If the blooms are of secondary importance, prune at any time.

When pruning palms, proper care must be taken not to cut or otherwise injure the terminal bud, or the whole tree will die. Old leaves on Washington palms should be removed, as they often harbor insects and rodents and may become a fire hazard. Remove palm leaves by cutting them from the underside to avoid tearing the fibers of the palm's stem. (Edward F. Gilman and Robert J. Black -- Circular 83.)

The old leaves of Sabal palms can be pruned. The berries on the stem should be removed because they may become slippery. Flower stalks of other palms can be left alone to take advantage of the ornamental characteristics of the fruit. Never remove leaves in the middle of the palms because their hearts are in the middle.

Part II will focus on pruning trees, shrubs and vines. For more information or brochures, stop by the Citrus County Extension Office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, or call 726-2141.

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