Pruning Trees and Shrubs in Winter (and Year-Round)

Pruning Trees and Shrubs in Winter (and Year-Round)

By Michael Jenkins

It’s easy to think of trees, shrubs, and bushes as static landscape features, but the reality is that they need regular care just like any other garden plant. Part of that care is regular and effective pruning—cutting away unwanted or unneeded limbs and foliage to help the plant grow and thrive. This is the time of year for many of us when colder weather puts trees and shrubs into their dormant state. For many plants, this is the perfect time to prune, so in this blog we’ll be focusing on winter pruning. However, many of the ideas we’ll explore can be applied to summer pruning as well, and we’ll talk a bit about which plants need to be cut back during that season.

The first step in pruning is to ensure that you have the proper tools, and that those tools are in working shape. While a couple good pairs of garden shears in various sizes and some hedge trimmers suffice for many pruning projects, some other tools may also prove useful or appropriate. A garden saw or bow saw can help with some particularly tricky or thick limbs—just make sure the blade is share and replace it as necessary! A pair of loppers—large cutting tools that look like over-sized garden shears or maybe bolt cutters—can be a real godsend when working with tree limbs or difficult to reach bushes and shrubs. While axes and chain saws are very rarely used for pruning, they can make cleaning up and disposing of downed limbs much easier. Regardless of the tools you use make sure they are sharp, in good working order, and well cleaned. Dirty pruning tools are a prime way to transmit plant diseases, so keep your tools pristine and your plants healthy! Speaking of staying health: it goes without saying that you should use appropriate safety equipment to keep yourself safe while working with any cutting tools!

While we’re on the subject of tools, here’s another quick tip: take a moment before you start pruning and plan how you’re going to dispose of the limbs and yard waste it creates. Having rakes, waste bags, and other essentials assembled and knowing how you’ll dispose of your pruning waste in advance can save some frustration when you think the job is almost done.

Now that we’re set up, let’s get to pruning! While every kind of tree and shrub has its own pruning needs, there are a couple of basics to bear in mind:

  • Pick the right day to prune. Ideally you’ll be pruning your trees, shrubs, and bushes on a clear dry day in late winter. Pruning too early in the winter can cause your plants to dry out as the plant tries to heal in freezing weather. Early winter rain or runoff can also spread disease to your recently pruned plants.
  • Just because evergreens don’t drop their leaves, doesn’t mean that they don’t experience winter dormancy. Winter is a great time to prune many evergreen trees and shrubs.
  • Know your plants, and prune at the right times. In general, plants that produce flowers or fruit on new growth should be pruned in late winter, while plants that produce on old growth should be pruned in spring and summer.
  • Start by removing dead, diseased, or damaged branches and limbs. The best place to cut is at the joint where the damaged limb or branch joins a large part of the tree. Use an appropriate sized tool—too big is often better than too small—and try to cut as cleanly as you can with as few cuts as possible.
  • Be careful not to damage the trunk of the tree or shrub while pruning! It helps to wrap portions of the trunk near the pruning site in burlap, moving blankets, or other protective fabric just in case you “miss” with shears or loppers.
  • Remove tree limbs or branches that rub against each other, or rub against other trees. Rubbing like this can cause damage to the bark that may lead to disease infection or worse.
  • Be very careful when dealing with high-up limbs, and be on the lookout for widow-makers—dead limbs that have fallen or partially fallen and may come down as you remove other parts of the tree. Be alert, inspect the pruning site and the space around it in advance, and wear protective equipment. Safety first! If a limb is too big or awkwardly placed, it may be time to call a professional tree service. Ditto if you need to remove an entire tree.

Pruning is an important part of keep your garden safe, healthy, and thriving for years to come. It may seem like a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding and with the right tools and the right approach it’s generally pretty easy and accessible. Just use the right tools and the right approach and keep safety in mind as you prune your garden this winter and year-round.

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