Gardening: March time for pruning many trees, shrubs


March can be a frustrating month for gardeners. Warm sunny days often call us into the garden to begin spring cleanup, but freezing weather may be right around the corner so clearing protective mulch from tender plants in March can be risky business. However, March is prime time for pruning most trees and shrubs. Exceptions are those that bloom in the spring because they have set their flower buds, and if you prune them now they will not bloom this season.

Before you begin pruning be sure you have the right tools for the job, and that they are oiled and sharpened. Dull blades make crushing cuts that heal slowly and encourage disease.

Professional gardeners, like professional chefs, have an array of quality cutting tools and they keep them in good condition. The famous English garden designer and television personality Dan Pearson has five pairs of by-pass hand pruners to choose from when pruning: three pair of Felco No. 2s and two very expensive Japanese models used for intricate work. Pearson uses his oldest Felcos to cut back perennials in spring as the blades end up poking into the dirt and the grit quickly dulls the blades. He will be removing dead plant material that cuts easily and blades dulled in the dirt will not be used to prune trees and shrubs.

The two important things to consider when buying a pair of hand pruners is comfort — how will they fit your hand and blade quality that determines how well they will take and keep a sharp edge. Brand names such as Felco, Bacho, Corona and Fiskars are among the manufacturers that manufacture professional quality cutting tools.

Several years ago, I gave a talk on gardening tools for the Philadelphia Hardy Plant Society. My late partner Jeff and I brought along maple whips so folks could actually do hands on pruning with the cutting tools I recommended to see if they “fit.”

Lopping shears, also called loppers, are the tool of choice for branches larger than a 1/2 inch across to about 11/2 inches in diameter.

Larger branches are best removed with a pruning saw with teeth specifically designed to cut live wood.

If you have to force a cut and your hand is straining, move on to another tool.

A good pruning book is another important tool worth investing in. I no longer do a lot of pruning so every spring I pull out my copy of The Pruning Book (Taunton Press) by the horticulturist and pruning prince Lee Reich.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at