Pro pruning

Departments - How To

Keep tools clean and sharp to grow healthier plants and improve efficiency.

July 5, 2017

Photo courtesy of Carlton Plants

To prune or not to prune? It’s complicated. Pruning decisions depend on where you’re located, what you’re growing, and what your customers want from you. But by making a few simple changes to their pruning process, any nursery can grow healthier plants and improve production efficiency.

Ed Gregan is a field representative for Carlton Plants, a wholesale bareroot grower out of Oregon. In this role, he devotes a lot of time to customer education, and the subject that comes up most often is pruning.

The No. 1 pruning problem Gregan sees in nurseries is that no one is cleaning their tools.

This is a big problem, because without being properly cleaned, tools can be used to spread diseases through the nursery.

“That’s the last thing you want to do,” Gregan says. “If you’re working in a block of cherries, you could spread gummosis. If you’re working in a group of lilacs and you’ve got Pseudomonas on one and you’re not cleaning your shears, you could spread diseases.”

There are several steps growers can take to prevent diseases from hitching a ride through the nursery on hand tools. The first step is to regulate movement between species. Instruct your pruning crews to make sure their tools are clean before they move on from one species to another. Even cleaning them more often, like between rows or blocks, may be necessary if you run into problems or if it is a particularly disease-susceptible crop.

That leads to the second major factor that arises from not cleaning tools: reduced efficiency.

“Any time snips get gunky, they should be cleaned,” Gregan says. “By not cleaning your tools, you lose efficiency. Especially if you’re dealing with things like Pinus that have a very white, nasty sticky liquid that comes out when you prune. Once you get that on your gear, it’s slowing your efficiency.”

Another efficiency booster that is often neglected in the nursery is sharpening tools. Sharp tools make quicker work, of course, but they also help the tree or shrub heal faster. Gregan says if your pruning gear isn’t sharp, your cuts won’t have a nice, crisp edge that can callous over more quickly.

Gregan recommends a few methods. He always keeps Clorox wipes with him when visiting a customer’s nursery to ensure his pruning snips are always at their best. He also uses these visits as an opportunity to educate his customers about the importance of sanitization and sharpening. He’ll often use the wipes while talking to a grower about cleanliness to reinforce his point.

“I’ve always kept a diamond file to keep my pruning snips good and sharp,” Gregan says. “I might take a couple strokes with that in front of a customer or field manager,” he says.

Gregan recommends that any pruning crew carry disinfectant. He carries a bottle of bleach to spray down the bigger shears instead of having to use the wipes. He also uses rubbing alcohol for certain types of plants because it works better when he deals with sticky, sappy material.

“Like Pinus, or any kind of an evergreen pine or fir,” he says. “They can get sappy. Alcohol takes off the pitch easier than bleach.”

Many nurseries, especially boxwood growers concerned about blight, do have very strict protocols for disease prevention. Some have a disinfectant rinse mat that visitors and employees must walk on or across as they arrive; others require special clothing to be worn when moving from one field or even block to another. Gregan even washes his truck before visiting several nursery customers. Nurseries should implement systems to make sure sanitization and sharpening are made a priority.

“A nurseryman should supply their pruning crews with some way to clean and disinfect their tools,” Gregan says. “And they should have a way to sharpen their tools. When I’m at Carlton Plants, I watch the hoeing guys go through. And there’s one guy who sharpens the hoes and dips the hoes in an antiseptic solution. Even kicking the side of a tree with your hoe when you’ve been weeding can cause diseases.”

Although you probably have your own strategies, hopefully your nursery can use these tips to grow healthy plants and profits. NM