Late winter or early spring is a good time to prune many woody plants while they are still dormant. There are exceptions, like some evergreens that tend to bleed sap are better pruned mid-spring so frost doesn’t effect the cut. Each plant is a bit different so it’s best to check out specific plants before you start in. Knowing the plant also helps you figure out how it should look.
Plants should primarily be pruned for the health of the plant and not for other reasons such as too tall, too wide or blocking a view. If these are the reasons for pruning, the plant may be in the wrong place. To chop at the top or sides just creates more problems later and usually isn’t very attractive. This is another whole separate discussion.
Before I start pruning I always make sure I have the correct tools and that they are sharpened. I often use several different tools on the same plant. It’s good to have hand pruners, a long handle pruner, pole pruner with saw attached and a hand saw. On rare occasions I have used a chain saw but I wouldn’t recommend that for the average gardener. Even with as much practice as I have had I don’t like pruning higher than I can reach from my orchard ladder with a 10 foot pole pruner. For big tree work I would recommend hiring a trained arborist. My feeling is that the cost of an ER visit is usually much more than what an arborist would be. An injury also HURTS. Unfortunately I know from personal experience and I wasn’t even on a ladder.
The first thing I do is remove the dead, diseased and damaged. These type of branches can be removed almost anytime because they adversely affect the plant. Sometimes this is all that is required if the plant is in the right place with ample room. After each step check out how the plant looks. You really want to do as little pruning as possible. Excessive pruning will stimulate the plant to create a lot of sucker growth which will be a problem later. Never take off more than a third of the growth. Another tip is to start pruning the tree or shrub when it is young to get a good shape because then you won’t need to correct bad growth habits.
Next you want to take out branches that cross one another creating irregular shape. Removing branches that grow back into the crown of the plant will help eliminate congestion and improve air circulation. Good air circulation helps the over all health of the plant by preventing disease.
If you are working on caning shrubs you may want to remove some of the older canes. This reinvigorates the plant and encourages the growth of new canes. An example of this is the red twig dogwood. I remove all the three-year and older canes leaving the growth that is one and two years old. The color on these canes fade with age so it loses it’s best attribute over time. By taking out the older growth your plant is always looking young and fresh.
There are many exceptions and special techniques for different plants and the look you are trying to achieve. It’s best, as I said before, to know your plant. Also taking a pruning class wouldn’t be a bad idea. Many classes are offered in the spring and only take a day to get some really good advice. There are also good books on the subject. One organization locally that specializes in pruning is Plant Amnesty. Their website at www.plantamnesty.org has a lot of good advice.