Get out and pinch, squeeze, whack and hack your plants and shrubbery. They’ll love you for it.
Hack hack hack …. hear it?
Not talking about a winter cough or a computer menace …
It’s the garden slashers and they are setting up a good look for next spring.
With the slowest growing season upon us, it’s time to cut back garden overgrowth in readiness for the warmer weather. The gentle word for it is pruning and the idea is to take off unnecessary stems, twigs and branches from a shrub, vine or tree to maximise the production of foliage, fruit and flowers. It stimulates and invigorates new growth and you can create a nicer shape for the plants in the process.
However, garden pruning seems to vary with personality types, I’ve found.
There are the enthusiastic hackers who go at it “rip, sh#* and bust””, believing the scorched earth look is the only basis from which summer growth can spring forth abundantly. They usually wear a maniacal grin wielding the shears, saw and secateurs and aren’t done ’til the last leaf’s standing.
Effective, yes, but a tad bombastic for most. The more restrained of us take the “less is more” approach and work on the one-third rule; ie one third cut back.
There’s more to pruning than random whacking and getting it right will ensure those lovely new buds burst through in profusion at your place in the warmer weather.
Why and how to prune
Pruning is not all about the tools, although they have their place and I speak further about them later here.
It’s about the right touch; scouring and snipping and delicate tip pruning, that is, squeezing off of old flowers, from annuals like sweet peas and pansies and perennials like irises and azaleas, trimming lillypilly hedges, bottle brushes, grevilleas, camellias, roses and fruit trees and vines, like mulberry, citrus, tomatoes and passionfruit.
Hollow pruning lets in air and light to the centre of rose and citrus bushes and skirt pruning takes off branches touching the ground. It restricts fruits trees height so the crop is reachable and removes diseased or pest-ridden growth, for example by borers. It can rejuvenate an ageing tree or ailing bush and produce lateral growth.
When to prune
General rule of thumb is prune immediately after flowering, such as for Australian natives. Shrubs that flower on new wood include roses, plumbago, some perennials and flowering ornamentals like prunuses, buddleias and crepe myrtles, philadelphus, weigelas and murrayas.
For annuals like sweet peas and pansies, a light pruning encourages branching and productive flowering. Sweet peas can be pinched back when the main stem gets to about 30cm; pansies need to be dead-headed frequently.
Perennials like geraniums and pelargoniums should be tip pruned at the end of autumn and cut back by one third in August. Herbaceous perennials like phlox, Michaelmas daisies, salvias and asters should get the same treatment after flowering and again in late winter. Take leaves off gerberas and hippeastrums in winter. Tip prune fuchsias, daisies and dianthus through summer and autumn.
Late-winter/early spring is typically the time to cut back evergreens, fruit trees, dormant deciduous shrubs and trees and summer-flowering shrubs and perennials, before they leaf out.
Dead or diseased wood can be removed at any time.
Roses that bloom only once a year should be pruned after they have flowered.
In cold climates, don’t prune evergreens, roses and deciduous shrubs in late summer. This cutback may stimulate a flush of late-season growth, which dies if temperatures drop suddenly in autumn.
The tools that cut it
You could spend a day (and a fortune) in the tool aisles of major hardware stores browsing all that shiney blade-ery, but for my money, there are four basic necessities: hand pruners for the 1 – 2.5cm twig range, loppers for the whopping 8cm branches, hedge shears for all of those bushes, shrubs and hedges in the growing season and the saw to tackle anything else.
Hand pruners (secateurs) are what you’ll use the most. There are bypass and anvil pruners and each cuts in a different way and designed for specific jobs. Bypass pruners use blades that slide with a scissor-like cutting action, letting you make clean, quick-healing cuts on healthy bushes, shrubs and plants. Anvil pruners use a straight-edge blade that cuts against a soft metal anvil. They’re designed for trimming dry and woody growth.
Look for top-quality construction, including forged steel alloy for bypass pruners and high carbon steel for anvil pruners. Make sure the tool is sized and balanced to feel comfortable in your hand. Go for ergonomically designed pruners for comfort and minimum stress on your joints.
Don’t risk damage to plant and pruning tool by trying to force them through larger material. For this you’ll need a lopper, or “grown-up” pruners which have longer handles to provide extra reach and leverage for trimming growth up to 8cm in diameter. Like hand pruners, loppers come with bypass or anvil cutting action and in sizes and designs to multiply your cutting power.
On bypass styles, look for forged steel alloy blades that can be resharpened, and replaceable blades and anvils on anvil styles. Handles should have comfortable, non-slip grips.
It’s important to keep pruners and loppers clean or you’ll spread diseases through your garden. After cutting back infected plants, such as roses, always wipe tools with alcohol or Listerine. Don’t use household bleach as it corrodes metal.
Buy the best tools you can afford. They will pay for themselves in the long run. Good quality tools stay sharp longer and cut easier.
Keep your tools sharpened. A sharp pruner is not just easier to cut with. It also makes a cleaner cut that heals faster – and puts less stress on your hand. And keep all moving parts lightly oiled between uses.
Pruning shears, hedge shears and grass clippers function in a similar manner. The two sharp surfaces of the blades come in contact at the base and cut all the way to the tips. They literally shear the grass and twigs from the stem of the plant with a scissors action. These two opposing surfaces are finely ground at the factory to the precise angle to make them efficient.
A 25cm mill file is best for sharpening tool hedge and pruning shears and grass clippers. If you find files confusing, read the package.
Now get hacking!