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Proper pruning best done with care

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Properly pruning evergreen shrubs like this boxwood involves following the stem tip down and removing the branch just above where it meets another branch. Jessica Walliser

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Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

Traditional holiday decorations often involve lots of evergreens. From pine boughs and boxwood garlands to juniper wreaths and holly sprigs, evergreens are an important part of many winter festivities. Though purchasing cut evergreen decorations from the local garden center is a great idea, you can harvest your own by properly pruning the evergreens on your property.

Evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs are in a dormant state this time of year. Dormant pruning for evergreens and certain deciduous trees usually takes place in late winter, just before active spring growth occurs. But, for evergreens, right now is a fine time to do some maintenance pruning, especially if you'd like to use the branches for the holidays. As a matter of fact, you're doing your evergreens a small favor by pruning them on a yearly basis like this. Minor pruning of evergreens should take place annually to keep them from growing too large and requiring more-drastic pruning techniques down the line.

Pruning is done for several reasons. It is used to remove damaged or dead plant growth, to encourage fruit and/or flower production in certain plants, or to maintain or create a special shape or form. Although a plant's natural shape is always best, sometimes it is necessary to control their size or form. But, unless you are growing a topiary, a well-pruned plant doesn't look like it has been pruned at all. A light annual pruning can keep evergreens well-proportioned with the rest of the landscape. It does not mean, however, that you can prune a 60-foot-tall fir tree into a 6-foot-tall hedge. You always have to consider a plant's expected size at maturity.

Evergreens, in general, don't require a lot of pruning, so a light annual trimming, just before the holidays, can become an important part of the maintenance routine for these plants. Keep in mind, though, that not all evergreens respond the same way to pruning. Spruces and firs are terrific candidates for pre-holiday pruning as once the terminal portion of a branch is removed, the lateral (or side) buds will sprout in the spring, covering the pruned area with new growth.

Pines, on the other hand, are poor candidates for pruning. This is because if you remove the stem tips, you'll eventually end up with nothing but dead stubs. Pines do not have lateral buds and no new growth will fill in the gap. Arborvitae, holly, junipers, boxwood, yews and most other non-flowering evergreen shrubs can be pruned now as well, and most tolerate fairly heavy pruning and even shearing (although, I never recommend turning any of them into “meatballs” by shearing them into oblivion). They'll pump out plenty of new growth come spring.

Here are more tips for proper pre-holiday evergreen pruning:

• Never remove the central leader of any tree (unless there are two of them, in which case you can remove the weakest). This is known as “topping” and is detrimental to the strength and shape of a tree.

• Begin by removing dead and/or diseased growth first. Then, remove crossed branches and those growing toward the plant's center.

• Do not prune broad-leaved flowering evergreens like rhododendrons and azaleas this time of year. Doing so will remove the flower buds for the coming year.

• Use a clean, sharp pair of pruners to judiciously remove evergreen branches by following the tip of the stem down into the shrub and snipping the branch off just above where it joins another branch. Clean the clippers with a 10 percent bleach solution when moving to a new plant to stave off the spread of disease.

• Never remove more than one-third of the total height and volume of a tree or shrub in any single pruning.

Never prune trees near power or utility wires. Leave that to the experts.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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