Begin by pruning away dead or damaged branches with a pruning shear, lopper or a saw. Your tools should be sharp enough to leave a straight, clear cut, with no ragged edges. Consider using anvil pruners and bypass loppers, which allow even smaller hands to cut branches up to 1 1/2″ thick. You’ll need a small powered chain saw, a wood saw or metal hacksaw for thicker branches and trunks. Prune just above what’s known as the “branch collar,” that little ring of bumpy tissue at the junction of a branch and main trunk. Why? The bumpy area is rich with plant growth cells. Leaving the collar intact gives your shrub a better chance to callous over and recover from your surgery.
Always cut branches on a slant, at a 45-degree angle. Why? A flat-topped cut may cradle water when it rains, inviting fungus or disease. Rainwater slides off a slanted cut. For a natural look, use the technique known as “heading back.” Eyeball the bush and locate the tallest main branch. With your eye and hand, follow this main branch until it meets a lower side branch that more or less points upwards. Cut the main branch off just above the smaller one. Repeat the process with this and all main branches, stepping back now and then — maybe even across the street — to assess the results. Prune slightly lower down than you feel really comfortable with; remember, new growth will add additional height over the next six months.
For a major overhaul — removing 10′ or more from a bush — use a saw on the main trunks, removing only a third of the height at each pass to prevent accidents.
Conifers and needle evergreens, such as juniper, cypress, pine, and ceader are best pruned back in stages. Start in late autumn or early winter, and use your cuttings for holiday decorations. The following spring, after you see the first hints of new growth emerging from your previous cuts, prune again to further reduce the height of evergreen shrubbery. Needle evergreens are tricky: If you prune below green growth, a branch may never again sprout. Rejuvenate fan-shaped deciuoius bushes such as forsythia, lilacs and bush-form roses by cutting back a third of all branches right down to the ground each year.
For bushes in foundation plantings, prune away any branches rubbing against the house or wall. Your neighbors won’t see the plant’s backside, so feel free to cut back for 8 inches to 12 inches of clearance. This improves air circulation around the back branches and ultimately results in a healthier bush.
Do you need to cover the cuts with tree paint or wax? No. If you have made a good, angled cut at the proper time, each species will safely heal its wounds without damage from frost, insects or disease. And when is the proper time? For needle evergreens, the winter dormant period.