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Many people prune their plants in the autumn when actually there is nothing to gain from this as the plant will not start growing again until the spring. It is also worth noting that unless you have a specific reason, most evergreen plants do not need to be routinely pruned.
To give you a clear guideline of pruning, there are several reasons to prune plants: to encourage flowering and/or fruiting; to improve the shape and structure of the plant; to reduce the size of a plant and to remove dead, diseased and damaged branches.
If you would prefer to minimise the pruning required in your garden there are a good range of dwarf variety plants available. For example, instead of planting Pieris ‘Forest Flame’, which can grow up to 5 feet, you could plant Pieris ‘Little Heath’, which only grows up to 30 inches.
When pruning your plants you will also need to consider the time of year that they flower and/or fruit. You are unlikely to kill a plant by pruning at the wrong time of the year, however you may lose the flowers and/or fruit for that year.
For this reason, if your plant flowers up until May, then prune it immediately after flowering. Examples of plants flowering at this time of year include Forsythia, Kerria and Ribes (Flowering Currant.) If your plant flowers from June onwards then prune it in early spring (usually March is best). Examples of these plants include Philadelphus (Mock Orange), Potentilla (Shrubby Cinquefoil) and Weigela. Please note these are general rules, there will always be some exceptions but these rules apply for most.
If you do not wish to prune early flowering plants such as Camellias, Magnolias and Rhododendrons after they have flowered, you can still prune them earlier in the year. To ensure you do not lose all the flowers you should prune a third of the shoots back one year, a third the next year and a third the year after that.
The best time to prune fruit trees and bushes is usually during the winter except for stone fruits (i.e. Cherries, Plums, Nectarines, Apricots and Peaches.) Prune these in March and this will help prevent a disease called silver leaf.
So, how much should you prune? As a general rule you should prune back the previous season’s growth by approximately two thirds. Also make sure you completely prune out any dead, diseased and damaged branches including any damage caused by snow.
Always prune just above a bud, making a sloping cut away from the bud. All pruning wounds should be left to heal naturally. Do not use any products to seal the wound as these can interfere with the plant’s own healing and defence mechanisms. This will increase the time it takes for the plant to heal and will also increase the risk of disease entering the plant.
There are three major plant nutrients and they all benefit the plant in different ways. Nitrogen is important for green, leafy growth. Phosphorous encourages root growth and Potassium or Potash, which is important for flowers and fruit.
All plants should be fed with a general granular fertiliser such as Growmore which contains equal parts of the above. Apply as a top dressing (by spreading around on the soil surface underneath the plants) at the rate specified on the product. You should water in the feed rather than raking in, as this can cause damage to the roots of the plant, especially shallow rooted plants such as conifers and Rhododendrons. Now is also the time to feed acid loving plants with sulphate of iron. Examples of these plants include Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Camellias, Pieris and Skimmia. Again, apply at the rate specified on the product and water in afterwards.
To encourage healthy flowers and/or fruit, you can also apply sulphate of potash. Apply just as the plant is beginning to flower, and again, water in.
It is also worth noting that whilst it is important to feed plants planted in the ground it is even more important to feed plants planted in containers. They will also benefit from a layer of fresh compost on the top each year.