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The first rule of pruning is that "whacking" is out. There are kinder and gentler ways to winnow those azaleas or tame that bottlebrush.

Think of pruning as a physical exam for your plants, trees and shrubs. With a routine maintenance program, your trees can live long and enhance the beauty of your landscape for years.

Pruning, when done properly, is one of the easiest ways to improve a plant's vigor, plus early detection of disease or insect could help eliminate the need for chemical pesticides. Pruning also controls plant size and will encourage branching and fullness.

It's important to know which pruning technique is appropriate for your shrub, tree, vine or fruiting tree. Too much or too little can make all the difference in the health of your tree. This information from the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service should provide some pointers:

HEADING BACK means cutting back terminal shoots to the bud or node. Trees rarely need heading back except when they grow beneath power lines. Always head back to a fork where there is a live branch growing in the desired direction. Shrubs such as ligustrum, gardenia, copperleaf, oleander, crape myrtle and cape jasmine benefit from this type of pruning.

THINNING is the removal of branches back to the main trunk; or in shrubs it may be thinning to the ground. Thinning gives a plant an open appearance and encourages new growth. Shrubs that benefit from this are allamanda, hibiscus, bottlebrush, holly and wax myrtle.

REJUVENATION PRUNING is a drastic method to prune old shrubs (over a two- to three-year period) that have become too large or that have a large amount of nonflowering wood. The best time to rejuvenate old shrubs is late winter or early spring, just before growth begins. Broadleaf evergreens respond best to this method.

Other pruning basics

TREES: Remove dead, diseased or broken branches; study the tree's form, then select the best space and best-positioned permanent branches, then remove or shorten. Remove fast-growing suckers that protrude from the trunk at the the base or along the side, or on large interior limbs.

HEDGES: Informal hedge pruning is done once a year by thinning and heading back, just enough to maintain desired height and width. Formal hedges should be pruned while new growth is green and succulent and shaped so the base is wider at the top.

Good shrubs for creating privacy screens include: juniper, oleander, holly, viburnum, podocarpus and ligustrum.

PALMS: When pruning palms, be careful not to cut or injure the terminal bud or the whole tree might die. Remove old leaves because they often harbor insects; dead fronds also might become a fire or safety hazard. Prune only yellow or brown leaves.

PINES: Terminal growth can be controlled by removing half of the new shoot in the spring just before needle expansion. This encourages new bud formation at the pinch. Do not pinch a pine at other times of the year because new buds will not form. Remove a half inch of each new shoot while at the candle stage. Avoid cutting into hardened wood.

TOOL TALK: Just as it's important to keep your plants in tip-toe shape, your tools deserve the same attention.

+ Dip pruners and saws in diluted bleach or alcohol (one part to nine parts water) between each cut.

+ Clean and lightly oil after each use.

+ Keep blades sharpened.

Source: Florida Friendly Landscape Tips: Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service.

Pam Brown, an Urban Horticulture Extension Agent in Pinellas County, "heads back" a crape myrtle terminal shoot to the node at the Florida Botanical Gardens at Pinewood Cultural Park in Largo.

Brown makes a "thinning cut" on a crape myrtle. This cut removes a branch back to another branch or trunk. All cuts should be made at a slight angle.

Pruning requires proper garden tools: from bottom, extension pruner, loppers and pruning shears, a small hand pruning saw and a larger "D" saw.

Pruning guide

Common Name Best time to prune

Allamanda early spring

Azalea after flowering

Bottlebrush after flowering

Bougainvillea after flowering

Boxwood anytime

Camellia after flowering

Cape Jasmine after flowering

Chinese Elm early spring

Citrus February-mid April

Crape Myrtle December-February

Dogwood after flowering

Frangipani anytime

Hibiscus early spring

Holly (shrubs) anytime

Holly (tree) anytime

Ivy anytime

Ixora after flowering

Jasmine after flowering

Jacaranda after flowering

Juniper anytime

Lantana after flowering

Loquat after fruiting

Magnolia after flowering

Mango after fruiting

Oak December-January

Oleander December-February

Palms anytime

Pentas early spring

Philodendron anytime

Pines March-April

Poinsettia February-March, July-August

Red Maple December-January

Rose December-January

Seagrape anytime

Sweet Gum December-January

Sycamore December-January

Tabebuia after flowering

Viburnum anytime

Wax Myrtle anytime as needed

Wisteria after flowering