I love it when the dirt folk questions roll in! The pruning questions have come up several times already. So, let’s make it as simple as we can.

The first thing I want to say is don’t buy a plant, shrub or tree that’s wrong for the site. Is it under a powerline? Close to a foundation? Will it outgrow its space? Will it survive where you want it?

Know what you’re buying before you buy it. Know what it requires to be healthy. Understand the parameters, and be able to abide.

Did you inherit the plants? Or plant them on a whim, years ago? Then it’s time to learn the why’s and wherefore’s of that plant.

When we’re talking about landscape shrubs, there’s a simple guideline that seems to work. Prune immediately after bloom. What if you miss that? With spring-blooming shrubs you’ve got a little window on some of them. For others, such as azaleas and rhododendron, if you wait too long you’re cutting off next year’s blooms. Summer-blooming shrubs have a little longer window. You can actually prune thru fall and winter. Crepe myrtle and Rose-Of-Sharon are good examples. I think the best thing to remember is, just prune! Shrubs that get regular “haircuts” seem to be hardier. You may miss a season of bloom but the overall health of the shrub will be improved.

Evergreens are different critters. They need to be trimmed while they’re dormant in early spring. There’s another opportunity in mid-summer when they’re semi-dormant again.

Fruit trees are interesting. In the beginning, if you buy bare-root trees, much of their feeder roots — up to 90% — have been left in the field but the top is the “regular” size. That means the plant has an uphill challenge to sustain itself. A bit of a trim will help the new plant get back in balance. Also, pruning from the start, helps stimulate stronger, more vigorous growth. And pruning for shape should be started as early as possible. But remember to do this during dormancy.

What if a branch breaks during growing season? Prune it cleanly, as soon as you can. Depending on the species, there are great guides on how and when to prune. Peaches, pears, apples, and so on, have specific best practices.

Do not use pruning spray or tar to coat the cut. The only thing you might use would be a spray bottle filled with soapy water. A healthy plant will self-heal.

If you’re like me, you want healthy plants, and I’m willing to do what it takes to help my trees form a strong framework.

Other things to consider are diseased, dead, damaged, crossed or rubbing limbs. When I prune a tree I look at those first, and trim accordingly. Make clean cuts as close to the trunk or limb as possible, with sharp cutters. Don’t tear the bark. This can mean the difference between a clean scar and an infected cut.

The size of the plant is completely controllable by correct pruning, as long as you know what size it’s supposed to be. Fruit trees are best pruned to open up the crown so the sunlight can get in. When pruning to thin, check for crossing branches. Take out the least needed. I also remove any vertical branches, whether they’re up or down. Remove anything growing inward, toward the trunk or toward another mature branch. Many times these branches will grow so close together that a pocket will form between, creating a place for a rotten cavity to form and spelling the death of the tree.

For shade trees, prune when dormant. Remove, as above, all the dead, damaged, diseased, crossing branches. Raise the canopy when needed. Cut out any branches growing inward or toward a main trunk.

Yes, I know there are some details needed, so I’ll wait for your email or call to give specifics. There are always shrubs I haven’t covered, but the basics are the same. I’ll be glad to discuss your specific needs.

If you’re just starting out, please don’t buy based on emotion or whimsy. Consider the needs of the plant vs. the environment it must survive. If they don’t match up, don’t plant that plant. If you’re patient and observant, you might even find a very suitable seedling growing happily among the pansies!

And I haven’t even touched on root pruning. Need more? Let me know!

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to velokigate@yahoo.com.