March is for Pruning
March is usually not a gardener’s favorite month, as there is not much in bloom and it may be a cold, gray, month. However, on those sunny days, it is great to be able to go out in the garden and see what may be coming up and of course begin spring cleanup and pruning.
Pruning has been called “an art and a science”; and maybe there is some truth to that saying. There is a bit of an art to shaping and forming plants and a science as to where and how to make the cuts. Many people are timid about pruning, but it really isn’t that difficult once you understand what needs to be done, when to do it and have the right tools.
March is an opportune time, before new growth begins, to prune many trees and shrubs, especially fruit trees, blueberries, raspberries and grapes. At this time of year, it is easy to see branches, limbs and trunks and assess any damage or breakage from winter storms and winds and remove any broken or damaged branches. It is important to make a correct cut when pruning branches. Years ago, the thinking then was to make a “flush cut” or cut the branch as close to, or “flush”, with the bark as possible and cover the cut, usually with an asphalt-based wound dressing or sealant. All that changed over 30 years ago when the late Dr. Alex Shigo proved that flush cuts actually encouraged decay and that sealants had no beneficial effect to slowing decay. Through years of research, Dr. Shigo went on develop a new concept of pruning that is still used today.
For these guidelines, diagrams of proper pruning cuts, and more info on Dr. Shigo’s work, go to:
If you think a large tree is dead, or it might be hazard tree, or if it is a large tree too close to a structure, then you might consider contacting a licensed and insured arborist, preferably a Massachusetts Certified Arborist (MCA), who could safely remove the tree or reduce its’ size correctly. More than one estimate is usually recommended, along with proof of insurance. To find a MCA in your area, go to http://massarbor.org
Besides pruning to remove dead, broken, damaged or diseased wood, we also prune to manage and maintain size and shape, to rejuvenate an overgrown plant, and to encourage flowers and fruit.
Usually, it is recommended to prune a plant according to the natural shape or form of the plant, and avoid shearing, unless the plants are being trained for a hedge, topiary or espalier. Some plants do not do well when sheared into the shape of a square, ball, lollipop, etc.
When pruning hedges, regardless of what type of plants are used, the important fact to remember is to shape the hedge so that the base, or bottom, of the hedge is wider than the top, allowing sunlight to reach all parts of the plant. Unfortunately, many people prune hedges the opposite way, so that the top of the hedge is wider than the base, thereby blocking or reducing the amount sunlight to the interior of the hedge. For more details on pruning hedges, go to https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/hortupdate_archives/2001/mar01/art5mar.html
It pays to invest in good, quality tools to prune - tools that will be reliable, make good cuts and not break easily; tools that will work with you to get the job done. Good quality hand pruners, lopping shears, a pole pruner, a hand saw and perhaps a pole saw are some of the tools needed to prune, depending on the job. It is important to keep the blades sharp and clean when pruning; purchasing a sharpening tool will enable you to sharpen the blades as they become dull.
Most non-ornamental flowering deciduous tree and shrubs, along with hemlock, Chamaecyparis, Arborvitae, Juniper, Ilex (holly), Taxus (yew) may be pruned in March, if needed.
March is not the best time to prune spring flowering plants like: lilac, Daphne, rhododendron, Mt. Laurel, mock orange, Deutzia, Wiegela, Hydrangea macrophylla, Pieris, azaleas, dogwoods, Fothergilla, Viburnum, Forsythia, etc. Pruning now will remove the flowers buds that were formed last year and the plants will not bloom this spring. The best time to prune spring flowering trees and shrubs is immediately after they have bloomed, before they set buds for next year. Pruning those plants in late summer, fall, or winter, before bloom, will usually result in few or no flowers.
Unlike ornamental trees and shrubs which may need occasional pruning, plants that bear fruit (apple, plum, peach, pear, blueberry, grape and raspberries require pruning on an annual basis, which means they need to be pruned every year. Pruning every year may increase yield by allowing more light into the canopy and also helps to increase air flow which may help reduce disease.
Pruning fruit trees, especially apples, can be a bit intimidating and some guidance from a class, video, or fact sheet can be very helpful. UMass sponsors a series of seminars for the home gardener that may be helpful in its Mass Aggie Seminars. The 2018 selections can be found at http://ag.umass.edu/fruit/news-events/mass-aggie-seminars
If that is not an option for you, the following videos and fact sheets may be of help with pruning and growing backyard fruit.
Videos and/or fact sheets on pruning:
Dr. Wes Autio, UMass Extension:
Connie Kratzke, Kahnke Brothers Tree Farm, Plato, MN
Dr. Wes Autio, UMass Extension
University of Maine Extension:
University of Maine Extension:
Pennsylvania State University Extension:
University of Maine Extension:
Pruning plants, correctly, benefits plants. Do not be afraid to make that first cut, as most plants are very forgiving and will usually outgrow most ‘mistakes’.
Last but not least, be careful when pruning, especially when using ladders and chain saws. See UMass Extension’s Pruning and Ladder Safety: https://ag.umass.edu/home-lawn-garden/fact-sheets/pruning-ladder-safety
Deborah C. Swanson, Horticulturist
2018 Workshops for Home Gardeners
- March 3 Edible Landscaping with Fruit, Amherst
- March 24 Home Orchard Pruning - a Hands-on Workshop, Great Barrington
- March 31 Pruning Blueberries - a Hands-on Workshop, Bolton
- April 7 Home Orchard Establishment & Basics - a Hands-on Workshop, Great Barrington
- April 7 Home Orchard Pest Management - a Hands-on Workshop, Great Barrington
- April 14 Native Pollinator Biology and Conservation, Amherst
For more details, including how to register, go to http://ag.umass.edu/fruit/news-events/mass-aggie-seminars