Pruning Gets Hectic

Easiest to Prune Plants

Most of the pruning I do is “dormant pruning,” that is, pruning while plants are leafless. A few weeks ago, pruning was a relaxed affair with still-cold temperatures keeping the buds only slowly swelling in anticipation of upcoming growth. Then a few warm days kicked them into gear, making pruning more hectic.

Berries of July

Berries, later

Hecticness is little problem with those plants that are the easiest to prune because the work can be quick; other plants require my standing back with arms folded for some study before every few cuts.

Here on my farmden, easiest to prune plants include mature ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines, and even some fruits. Those fruits are American persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry. They’re so easy because they can get by with little or no pruning.

Mostly what I do with the three fruit trees, every year or so, is to take a lopper or a saw and hack back . . . whoops, I mean “prune” . . . a tall limb back to a weaker growing, usually more horizontal, side branch. That’s to keep fruit within safe reach or not falling so far of its own accord that it splatters upon the ground. It also doesn’t leave a tree looking like a victim; done correctly and you hardly know that steel has been taken to the tree.

Easy, but Need Annual Pruning

Then there are easy-to-prune plants that do need annual pruning, but pruning them is as easy as following a recipe. Brambles — blackberries and raspberries — are counted in here. They all have perennial roots but their canes are biennial. That is, canes just grow the first year, then fruit and then die their second year.

The first step in pruning these plants, then, is to get down near ground level and cut all the two-year-old canes to the ground. These canes broadcast their age with peeling bark and an old and dead, or dying, appearance.

Gardeners telling tell me about their raspberry or blackberry patches make me cringe. “Patch” does conjure up an image of a cozy, cottage-y planting, but isn’t the way to grow these fruits if you want to make picking easy and limit disease problems. All of which leads to step two of this recipe.

Red or yellow raspberries spread to create a patch by sending up shoots via underground runners; black raspberries and blackberries do so by arching their long canes to the ground where they take root and make new plants. Too many new plants, in either case.

Red raspberry bed, pruned

Red raspberry bed, pruned

So I limit my red or yellow raspberries to a swath only a foot wide, and then within that swath remove enough plants so those that remain are a few inches apart.

With black raspberries and blackberries, I remove any plants closer than 3 to 5 feet apart (depending on their vigor) and then thin out remaining canes in each remaining clump to the fattest and healthiest-looking half-dozen.

One more step for these berries is to shorten red or yellow canes enough to keep them from flopping around. How much depends on how tall they are and how they are trellised, if at all. Black raspberries and blackberries fruit on side shoots; these need to be shortened to about 18 inches long.

(So-called everbearing — aka “fallbearing” — red or yellow raspberries can be pruned as described above. Or, just lop the whole planting to the ground late each fall, sacrificing midsummer harvest but still offering late summer and early fall berries.)

Also Easy

Two more fruits also fall into this easy-to-prune category. 

Lowbush blueberries, like brambles, bear on two-year-old (and, to a lesser extent, three-year-old stems). But they grow too many stems to selectively prune them.

So I take my hedge trimmer and every other year, or every third year, cut all stems to the ground.

Shearing lowbush blueberries

Shearing lowbush blueberries

There’s no crop the year they are pruned but dividing a planting in halves or thirds and pruning a different half or third every year circumvents that drawback.

Lowbush blueberries, flower buds

Lowbush blueberries, flower buds

Blackcurrants bear in a similar manner to lowbush blueberries but their stems are few enough for selective pruning. I cut to the ground any 3-year-old stems as well as anything more than the best half-dozen 1-year-old stems.

Blackcurrant, before & after pruning

Blackcurrant, before & after pruning

Just a Wee Bit More Difficult

From here, I move on to shrubs — only slightly more difficult to prune — that bear fruit on older wood, which determines which stems I cut out. 

Most gooseberries and redcurrants, for example, bear best on stems 2 and 3 years old. So the strategy here is the same as for brambles, except that the stems that I cut away are those that are 4-years-old. After that I remove excess new stems arising from ground level. When pruning is finished, the shrubs are left with about six each of one-, two-, and three-year-old stems.

Pruning blueberry bushes also follows the same strategy, except that since the bushes bear well on stems up to six-years-old, I prune away stems older than this and cut to the ground all except the healthiest 4 new stems.

Blueberry before & after pruning

Blueberry before & after pruning

Now on to the fruit trees. Wait, I can’t do it now! I’ve got to run outside, grab my hand shears, lopper, and pocket saw, and do some pruning. Stay tuned next week for fruit tree pruning.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier. How to prune it? Some other time.

For more pruning detail, more plants, and more techniques, see my book The Pruning Book.

9 replies
  1. Martin
    Martin says:

    This looks like a lot of effort but I am going to assume that with the proper pruning you reap some amazing results when the plants start to bear fruit.

  2. Aparna
    Aparna says:

    I pruned the ‘Triple crown’ thornless blackberry primocane after it reached about 5 ft(height of the trellis) last summer. However, it has no lateral branches at all. Any idea why this might have happened? Since the fruit is produced on laterals, what should i do this year so that I can get berries next year.Thanks.

  3. Grace
    Grace says:

    I was just reading your article about “Pruning Gets Hectic” and I wanted to reach out. The article is awesome. Not only does it provide an interesting perspective on the topic of gardening but also talks about how a hectic garden can be stressful.
    Do you know what happens when people don’t prune? They end up with all these overgrown plants that they don’t have time for! It’s really overwhelming if you think about it too much. It’s great to see someone talking about this problem and how to avoid it in the future.

  4. Devi Smith
    Devi Smith says:

    I’m a huge fan of your blog. I loved this post because pruning can be tedious work. The best part is that you’ve shown us an easy solution to make it less time consuming! Thanks for taking the time to share this with us.


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