It would be nice to think that gardening is an exact science, like math. But it's not. There are way too many variables and opinions. Even cooking would probably be less subjective. I figure most people have an idea of what tastes good, and what tastes awful, and so the trick is to get things somewhere in between these extremes. As long as you don't burn it or poison people, you're at least on the right track. Once a certain meal is over, you can start fresh. With gardening, there are long-term consequences. If you do it wrong, you may destroy the environment and kill all the animals. But don't let that worry you.
Opposing viewpoints in gardendom are common. Misinformation abounds, oversimplification leads to all sorts of mistakes and confusion, and weird opinions can give me headaches. I could write an article about conversations I've had with experienced gardeners who are complete idiots with no aethetic sensibilities, but that's really an opinion, I guess. There are plenty of people who will agree with their awful judgement. The most important thing is to avoid killing stuff, and everything else is less critical.
When you have this glorious internet thingy, you can find endless articles on every subject about gardening. If you spend enough time, you'll probably be even more confused by the time you extensively research anything, most specifically in this case about pruning.
OK. Understand that, and breathe a sigh of relief.
I need to focus here, and make this mostly about pruning. So here goes.....
I know there are some very basic things that are almost completely in agreement, like how to physically cut branches to avoid damage and prevent decay and disease. So you probably can learn all that you need to know about that in a half hour. But then when you want to learn about things like WHY you should cut this or that, when to do it, how the plant will react, etc., good luck. You need to use your head, if not to actually figure out the science and art, but simply how to make sense of what people tell you. It can take a long time and a lot of backtracking to use logic to determine who has it right and who's full of baloney. And then you have the rather unfortunate issue of people oversimplifying things for efficiency so they don't lose your attention and hopefully keep you from doing something stupid in the immediate future. Just about any time something is oversimplified, you're missing a lot of info that can be vital to making the best decision.
You need to actually give horticulture a lot of deep logic to make sense of it all, or find someone that makes it so clear that there's almost no question what's right and wrong. Unfortunately, I'm not yet fully at that stage, after reading hundreds of articles and taking classes from experts and experimenting (no, not with drugs), and I don't encourage you to take my word absolutely. I can be wrong sometimes, and I'll correct myself as I learn, though I try to avoid telling you anything detrimental to the point that you'll actually hurt your plants in the long term. Rather, you might just not get them to look their absolute best. Irreversible harm is something I do my best to avoid. Sure, I've killed some plants. Every gardener has. But it's almost always caused by underwatering or overwatering or something like that, and not because a few bad cuts were made.
Horticulture, arboriculture, gardening, whatever you want to call it, is very deep. There's this science, which is absolutely not fully understood, and then there's the art, which is highly subjective. The science can vary a lot depending on reactions from something you do or the plant does on its own, or from your location and climate, or your intent. The art is simpler, and it may just be what you think looks good with little regard as to whether it's judged right or wrong by other people, or if it's scientifically sound. I tend to be quite experimental on some of my own trees, specifically about getting them to look a certain way, as anyone in bonsai does, and less experimental for clients. In those cases, I encourage making things healthy and look natural but beautiful (completely natural isn't always beautiful, more on that in another article). Sorry, this got a little off-topic.
Possibly the hardest thing to understand in pruning is timing. I guarantee you that if you spend a few hours Googling "when to prune", or something like that, you'll come away more confused at the end of your endeavor than before. Even opinions that are 180 degrees apart can be right, but it would depend on the expected outcome and the follow-up. This will be discussed in another article, so at this point, just be assured that it's almost never simple. Probably the most important thing regarding timing, is how to avoid making things unhealthy by pruning at the wrong time, though this in itself can vary for several reasons. Oh, golly, how do I make this clear?
OK. First, you want to research a tree you want to prune. If it's a tree that is susceptible to diseases made worse by pruning at a certain time, do more research and figure it out for your area. Trees like this include oaks, elms, birches, fruit and nut trees, bleeders, and flowering trees and shrubs that have fungal problems related to decaying flowers. Good luck. The opinions are often complete opposites.
Regarding specific cuts, the actual standards can often have rules that frequently have exceptions. This, too, will require a separate article, so stay tuned.
OK, I'm not sure this article is making the sense I want it to, so just take away from it that you need to avoid thinking you'll have complete confidence, or find a concensus. Research what you can, use your head, and don't just do what the neighbors do. If you know someone that seems to really know their stuff, buddy-up with them. And learn from their mistakes, and question what they do. They don't always get it right.
Study trees that look like shining examples. It may only take a few minutes. It's easy to see when things are lopsided or hacked up, but try to see if the structure looks good. It's not that hard, but this seems to be the thing I notice most people don't get, and that's another article or more that needs attention. Once you get it, you pretty much get it for every tree you'll ever see again, so it's really worth a few minutes of concentration.
As far as what I can do, is try to write articles that tell you the difference between my own opinions and what would really be almost completely agreed upon by the experts. So that's my new challenge. Sometimes opinions can be so strong that I don't want people to disagree with me. That isn't always the best strategy. After all, if you polled a bunch of people about what they think is the most perfect movie ever made, I'm pretty sure the most common answer would be "Star Wars". I know this because I used to ask this eact question of people in some surveys for other purposes, and it was far and away the most perfect movie by popular opinion. Well, need I tell you, "Star Wars" has lots of flaws, far more than many other movies that might not be as much fun, so I would hesitate to use that movie as a shining example of the best movie ever made, no matter how entertaining it is. Everyone should realize that "Sharknado" is the most perfectest movie ever, end of argument.
All right. Go plant a tree and don't kill it. That's a good start. Have fun!