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Proper tools, timing key to pruning success

By Mary Jo Frank

Early spring is an excellent time to check your woody plants to see if they need pruning, horticulturalist Ellyn Meyers told the Chelsea Area Garden Club at its March meeting.

Meyers, who teaches horticulture and landscape design at Lansing Community College, said gardeners prune for multiple reasons, including to:

  • Improve plant health by removing dead and diseased branches.
  • Improve over-all structure of the plant by removing suckers, water shoots, and branches that cross or rub one another.
  • Reduce plant size.
  • Rejuvenate plants.
  • Give a plant a distinctive shape, such as with topiary.

Clean, sharp and properly sized tools work best, said Meyers, who uses hand sheers, loppers, bow saws, pruning saws and pole saws for branches with small diameters, and chain saws for large branches. To avoid spreading diseases, Meyers recommended disinfecting the cutting tool between cuts with denatured alcohol or a 10 percent bleach solution.

Diseased plants can be trimmed any time of year. “Prune when you first spot the disease,” said Meyers, who recommended making pruning cuts 6 to 12 inches below the diseased section. Burn or send the diseased wood to the landfill. Don’t put diseased wood in the compost pile or leave it in the yard. She also recommended leaving the wound open to the air to heal instead of covering the cut with wound dressing or paint.

Early flowering shrubs—lilacs, forsythia, mock orange, rhododendrons or wisteria—are best pruned immediately after they flower. Pruning spent flower heads improves plant growth and reduces the energy the plant must spend on producing seeds. Avoid pruning early flowering shrubs in late winter or early spring because pruning removes the flower buds.

Summer blooming shrubs, such as butterfly bush, sumac, rose of sharon, spirea or hydrangea, are best pruned in late winter or early spring, Meyers noted.

Shrubs that are grown primarily for foliage, like privet, boxwood and holly, can be pruned in late winter or early spring. Do not prune plants in autumn, from September to November, until after a cold period has occurred, Meyers said, because stimulating plant growth in the fall may increase the likelihood of winter damage if the growth has not had time to sufficiently “harden off” before winter.

When pruning to renew an older plant, remove one-third to one-fifth of the canes, selecting the oldest, thickest canes and those with disease to remove, Meyers recommended.

To rejuvenate a mature shrub that is overgrown, Meyers suggested removing all the branches a few inches above ground level. Forsythia, spirea, potentilla and butterfly bush are examples of plants that respond well to renewal pruning.

“If a plant requires frequent, heavy pruning, then you have selected the wrong plant for the location,” said Meyers, who suggested replacing it with a plant that will fit the space when it matures.

Members of the Chelsea Area Garden Club will be available to answer pruning and other gardening questions at the club’s annual plant sale. Proceeds from the plant sale support civic beautification, gardening scholarships and grants for community projects.

Ellyn Meyers can be reached at

Visit for information about the Chelsea Area Garden Club.

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