By C. Rae Hozer
The time for spring pruning of pines is right now while new growth (commonly called "candles") is still pale green and flexible. Waiting until later in the season or using tools like hand-held or long-handled pruners doesn’t give good results. I want to share with "Plateau Gardening" readers today secrets that have helped me successfully prune two young white pines growing at the edge of the woods near our garage for more than 10 years. The trees are smaller in size and more compact in growth habit than if they had been transplanted then left to grow naturally without intervention.
The University of Tennessee Extension publication “PB1619 Pruning Landscape Trees, Shrubs and Ground Covers” is available at your county UT Extension office or downloadable to your home computer in pdf format free of charge by entering utextension.tennessee.edu/morgan/Documents/landscape_PB1619.pdf in your web browser. PB1619 talks about trimming pines (Pinus species) and other landscape plants in springtime.
Table-4 "Evergreen-Plants" starts with a general statement advising the best time to prune evergreens is in late winter or early spring before new growth starts and cautions frequent spring and summer trimming may be needed to achieve the desired size and shape. However, individual entries in the booklet’s pruning tables give species-specific recommendations. The one detailing treatment of pines recommends candles be pruned during their spring growth phase rather than before it. Pinch about 50 percent of each candle off using your thumb and forefinger. Use of hand pruners or pruning sheers to cut off new shoots on pines is not recommended because such implements damage surrounding needles leaving them with brown tips and giving an unnatural look. Experience has taught me this is good advice.
I found additional tips in “Pruning Made Easy A Gardener’s Visual Guide to When and How to Prune Everything from Flowers to Trees” (copyright 1997, paperback edition, ISBN 1-58017-007-2) by Master Gardener Lewis Hill. Hill translates sharp observations from nature into helpful hints "Plateau Gardeners" can use when pruning this type of needled evergreen. Following his suggestions could help you make pines in your yard look as if they grew naturally to a size and shape you achieved in fact, by pinching them back early in the morning or during springtime rain showers. Let me explain.
As a young man Hill saw that his family’s herd of Holstein dairy cows kept balsam firs and white spruce trees growing along side or in their pasture a compact size and neat shape. The cattle would start to nibble on the soft, light-colored green shoots when they first appeared in spring and move on to other food sources once the evergreens’ short (about three weeks) growing period was over. Equally important was the presence of moisture — the cattle always browsed on the evergreen trees during a rain or when the candles were wet with morning dew. When Hill copied these bovine pruning techniques to shear young evergreens, his landscape efforts became the envy of local landscapers and his town’s best gardeners. Try pinching pine candles back while wet with dew or rain.
The general recommendation is that plants which flower once in the spring be pruned immediately after flowering, which means some readers may be looking for advice on cutting back particular specimens in that category. PB1619 also contains pruning tips for spring-blooming shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons, flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.), Weigela and witchhazel (Hamamelis spp.) in Table-1 as well as hints for shaping spring-flowering trees like redbud (Cercis spp.) and serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) in Table-2.
Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (484-6743) for answers to horticulture questions, free publications and how to become a Master Gardener. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae, MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net.