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Redbud pruning

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#1 Janet Macunovich

Janet Macunovich


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Posted 03 September 2016 - 11:11 AM

From direct email:


I have been a big fan of yours for about 20 years. Your advice is always helpful and I enjoy your articles in the "MI Gardener.” I have taken your written advice and been to several lectures at Meadow Brook Garden Club. You are a wonderful, enlightening and interesting lecturer. I also love your amusing asides about gardening.

I attended your lecture about the correct way to prune last spring at the Meadow Brook Garden Club. I have a Redbud my son raised from seed at his nursery in Wisconsin and gave to me as a sapling. It was 3 years in the ground and was looking pretty pathetic with my skewed pruning jobs. At that lecture I asked you when and how to prune a Redbud and you advised me “Now and do it drastically.” I went home and the next day I pruned it exactly how you told me to. I pruned it down to about 40 inches with just a few big branches. It was a little better than a stick. I fertilized it and mulched it. I made sure it had enough water. Then I waited and I waited. For about a month it didn’t do much but bloom on the stems, then slowly it started to leaf out. About mid-June it went nuts and became the tree I wanted. As the summer has progressed it tripled in size and is now about 15 feet tall with lush and balanced growth. A happy second beginning for this tree. The main branches are all at least 3 to 4 feet long, well leafed out but not branching. Should I wait until next year to prune for branching or will it branch out by itself? How do I progress from here? I hope you can help.

You may never get feedback from the people you advise on tree pruning but I, the big doubter, wanted you to know that your pruning method for this Redbud really worked. I learned a lot the day of your lecture and have used your methods of pruning on other trees since. So, I say a big “Thank you.” This believer is grateful for your pruning guidance.

Best regards, B.Z.

#2 Janet Macunovich

Janet Macunovich


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Posted 03 September 2016 - 11:12 AM

Glad to hear it, B.Z. Thanks for taking the time to let me know the second chapter to this story.


Those new branches will themselves branch, naturally, usually in year two. Flower buds may not form except at bases of new branches -- while limbs 2 years old and older develop bloom right to the tips.


What you can do this year, right now being a good time, is to remove any branches that don't fit your vision. That might be awkward crossing branches-- those that originate from one side of the trunk and backtrack to the other side, crossing through the center of the tree. Also, you can clip off the tips of those limbs you're keeping, to stimulate branch bud formation.


Now, if you want to keep the tree smaller than its genes and local conditions allow, you can increase that end-clipping to be branch-shortening. How far you shorten a branch depends on how much you want to restrict the tree's growth. You've seen its growth potential. A brand new main branch, such as those that grew from your cut point, can grow many feet. When a branch is old enough to produce side branches, its overall extension is usually less -- think of its energy as being divided between multiple branches, so one limb that grew 4' might grow just 2' as it extends each of several side branches 12". It's not a straight math equation, because more branches means more leaves, and more leaves means more energy being produced and available. But I think you'll get the picture: If the tree is now as tall and wide as you want it to be, then clip every main branch back by the amount you expect it can extend itself next year; watch and see and adjust your annual cut accordingly.

#3 Janet Macunovich

Janet Macunovich


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Posted 03 September 2016 - 12:26 PM

Late summer (mid August to mid-September in my neck of the woods) is a good time to prune woody plants we want to keep smaller than their potential. Right now, the plant has had a whole growing season to sock away energy, and the growth for this year has pretty much finished so the buds it's set for next year have established their place in the spring growth hierarchy. That is, the buds at the tip are set to dominate -- to grow more than those further down along the branch. Clip the tip buds away now and the remaining buds are likely to begin the year in subordinate mode. Tips will not leap away from the pack, at least to begin the spring.


We've pruned this tree for many years so its framework of main branches is set. Thus pruning consists mostly of cutting back existing branches in late summer. We usually prune it right after bloom, too -- it grows that fast that two clips a year are the only way we've found to keep it in check and also blooming well.

Before the clip...:



... and about an hour later:



The branches we removed are those that developed just this year and extended wider and taller than we permit. We clipped away the likes of these branches. We only allow new growth within the framework and height/width limits we set.



Spring blooming trees and shrubs like this redbud have also set their flower buds for next year, and we can tell as we prune how many blossoms we might be sacrificing,

Flower buds usually form only on wood that's at least two years old -- see the point where new growth began, and that flower buds are present only below that point?





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