Pruning What Natives When - and How

Pruning is a large topic. If you are new to pruning, you should learn some basic techniques. Like make thinning cuts, not heading cuts. Prune just above a node where you want the growth to happen. Don't leave stubs. Remove crossing branches, and dead branches - and so on. Any good pruning book (such as The Pruner's Bible) will have reliable info on technique. I provide a few more on my post on pruning a young oak that was growing into the road.

But how do you know what to prune - and when - and how? Expert gardeners get a feel for it that I envy. But what's a beginner to do?

I'm away from my home library as I write so I can't delve into book-based resources. (For more on California native gardening books in general, you can check out our book review posts.) But here are a few good guides on the web that will take you a long way.

Bert is known for his strong - and well informed - opinions, and for his wit. For example, he follows a general tip with some advice for pruning palms:
Prune a little more than just the dead portions, up to 30% of the plant/year is Ok. (We feel that palms may be pruned to the ground every year until they don't come back.) 
Sorry all you palm lovers (including my next door neighbor)!

I like Bert's general philosophy -- to follow nature. Prune like a deer. (Or as Bert says, a deer with a chainsaw!) And if you find yourself having to prune more than that, then it's a sign you picked the wrong plant for the spot.

But that principle doesn't always hold. There are times when you do want to do aesthetic pruning for example.

A row of blue elderberries, Sambucus mexicana, volunteered along the fence line between me and my neighbor. Glory be to birds who sit on fences and poop! It's a convenient location for a privacy screen. But our native elderberries tend to grow in awkward shapes in the wild. Also they grow very fast - so I've been experimenting with pruning them.

Not too successfully I might add. They are downright ugly.

A badly pruned elderberry.
Cut an elderberry branch and two long, long branches will sprout from the top, one on each side, at right angles. And a crowd of other long branches will sprout farther down, at odd angles. "Thinning cuts" are a bit difficult with this sprawling growth habit.
So I recently took a notion to get out there and fix them. Fix them good. I looked till I found a guide that says you can prune them in fall, and then I got to work.

But on rather more honest post-hoc checking, I read that pruning them now, in late fall, stimulates new growth that might be damaged by the cold winter weather ahead. In general, it's better to do the hard pruning right before the spring growth spurt.

Oh dear.

I think they'll be OK though. They are tough, and our winters are generally mild - we are zone 16 in the Sunset Western Garden climate system.

With one exception I pruned all the elderberry plants back to a few strong "trunks" about a foot or two in length allowing two or three nodes for branches to grow from. This is what Pruner's Bible said to do.

But now I'm thinking that I'll get the same ugly growth pattern, just two feet lower than last year's.

I'm now doubting whether this is the best approach. I think I'll go back and coppice. What do you think?

So I'm thinking I might just coppice them, that is cut them completely down to the ground, and let lots of new branches come up from the base, aiming for a shrubby form.

I left some prettier tall branches on the elderberry by the gate between our property and the neighbor's (we are good neighbors despite my comment about the palms!). I pruned lots of ugly trunks and branches out, leaving a few rather elegant looking ones that arch nicely over the gate.

Will this look nice after spring growth?
(Please pardon the messy utility area behind the tree!)

But what looks good now may not look good in a few months. I wonder what will happen.

More than that, I wonder if I'll learn from what happens!

I'm gathering resolve now. In summer, which I now know for sure is a good time to coppice toyons that are old and leggy, I'm going to coppice a few of our wild natives that are growing around the house, to rejuvenate them.

And maybe rejuvenate me, too, in the process -- who knows!


I'm slowly learning to prune really HARD as soon as the summer turns cooler - so I benefit from the exuberant growth which greets kind cool wet weather. Pruning palms to the ground - that I agree with - so many developments have rows of palms. Boring!!
That's the trouble with pruning, there is no 'one time fits all' method that works, and timing is everything. Prune too early, you stimulate too much growth before the cold of winter, prune too late and you sacrifice bloom...something our chain-saw laden deer are very good at I might add. It does take time to get know individual plant needs. Even our fruit trees can't all be pruned at the same time, and we prune at different times of year, depending on the desired result. I'm still learning myself! Good luck with your elderberries, I'll be curious to see how they look in spring.
ryan said…
Good luck in your battles with the elderberries. They're an unruly plant. Pretty cool that you got so many volunteers. I really like their great big leaves.
ebw-pete said…
i always prune elderberry branches all the way to the ground [coppice]. you don't have to remove ALL of them, but only the ones which look unruly to you. blue elderberry seems to take pruning well anytime of the year. mature elderberries have a very attractive vase shape, but to get there, you need to remove lots of crazy branches, plus you need to be patient.
Country Mouse said…
Now I'm visualizing deer with chainsaws! Pete, thanks for your advice - what you say sinks in with all the simple weight of truth.