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Winter Pruning

Winter Pruning

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Many trees and shrubs should be pruned in the winter. The plants are dormant and cut branches will not "bleed". For others, a winter pruning ensures a great flush of growth and blooming during the growing season. Every tree or shrub may have its own specialized needs, but following these general guidelines will give a basic direction and avoid disastrous mistakes.

When in Doubt - Don't!
First and foremost, why are you pruning? This may seem like a ridiculous question, but I have found many people prune out of some vague inner feeling that "I must prune". The reality is that I have seen an amazing amount of wasted energy with such an attitude as well as, unfortunately, a lot of senseless destruction and garden mayhem. So the first rule is: If you are in doubt, just leave it alone and don't prune at all. Now that's what I call low maintenance!

A classic mistake is pruning spring flowering shrubs or fruit trees in winter and, innocently, cutting off all the flowering wood! I have seen this countless times and been asked, "Why don't I get flowers or fruit?" The embarrassing answer is "because you cut off all the flower buds!" These buds form in late summer or fall and remain dormant through the winter. (Another possibility, by the way, is that the plant is cold hardy in your area, but a late frost can destroy the flowers or new fruits. This is a limiting factor for peaches or almonds.)

Three Basic Rules:
Spring flowering shrubs (read as "flowers on last summer's wood") should be pruned after flowering.

Summer flowering shrubs (read as "flowers on new growth of the current season") can be pruned in the winter.

Plants of borderline hardiness should be pruned after all danger of frost has passed. That way any dieback due to cold damage will be pruned off. Pruning these too early can result in even further dieback.

Get the Right Tool for the Job
Hand pruners are used for general pruning up to the thickness of a finger. Loppers look like long-handled heavy-duty pruners. They can be used on branches up to the size of a broomstick. Pruning saws are often curved with teeth designed to cut fresh wood. Do not use a regular saw for pruning - the fine teeth are for dry wood will only frustrate if used on green wood. For anything larger than 6-inch diameter or so, a bow saw or chain saw should be used.

The Three D's
A professional gardener friend, Dan Gordon, uses the acronym of the three D's: Dead, Damaged, and Diseased. Any branches in this state must be removed for the general health of the plant. Dead or damaged areas are sources of insect entry or disease. Areas already affected may have to be removed down to healthy wood. The general rule is to clean out the dead, damaged and diseased, and then deal with what is left.


Dead and damaged wood should be tended to, as it is a prime entry point for pests or diseases. Typical post-winter damage is broken branches from the weight of ice or snow. Cut back to a bud or side branch or to the trunk, depending on how you want the plant to grow.

Do not leave stubs!
Leaving stubs is ugly. After all, isn't a garden supposed to be attractive? A more serious consequence of leaving stubs is that it will die back, and dead wood invites invasion by insects and fungus. Again, any cut should be back to just above a bud or almost flush to a side branch or the trunk.

Three-step Cuts for Large Branches
When cutting larger branches one must be careful that the weight of the branch does not cause it to fall before the cut is through and thus rips the bark down the trunk. As a precaution, one should first make a partial cut on the bottom of the branch. Then a full cut further out so when the branch falls it only rips down to the undercut. Finally, a third cut will remove the stub that was left.

First Aid for Cuts and Wounds
Small cuts can be left alone. Larger cuts should be sealed to prevent invasion by insects or disease. There are many opinions as to how to treat a large cut or wound. A common practice is to cover the cut area with a tar-based pruning paint. However, one runs the risk of sealing in bacteria or retarding the healing process. Thus, as I was taught, the best treatment for pruning cuts is very simply orange shellac.

Wounds (such as an area hit by a snowplow blade or construction equipment) should have their margins smoothed out into a diamond shape like two parentheses: () This promotes quicker healing as the sides of the wound grow together.


Fire Blight!
Beware of blackened, burnt looking dead braches and twigs on Rose family plants such as apple, pear, Pyracantha, Cotoneaster or Photinia. A classic symptom is also that the tip of the twig is limp and drooping. This may be a very contagious bacterial disease called fire blight. Don't worry - it does not affect people or pets - only plants in the apple group of the Rose family. It may also cause cankers that are blackish or brownish, even on the trunk. If you are not sure, call your local extension agent.

Make sure you cut back into healthy wood to completely remove affected parts. Six inches (15 cm) for smaller branches or twice that for larger branches.

Fire blight enters the plant through flowers or wounds. It is carried by insects or through splashing water, so removing and, ideally, burning affected parts is important to stop the spread.

When pruning branches infected with fire blight, be sure to cut back into healthy wood. Traditionally recommended is to dip the pruners or saw after each cut into an anti-bacterial solution (alcohol or chlorine bleach diluted in 9 parts water). A relatively recent attitude is that the disease is not spread through cuts and sterilizing pruners is of questionable value. I give you both sides. There are sources to rely on for each approach.

Ounce of Prevention
The easiest way to prevent fire blight is to avoid planting susceptible species. Even among those that do get fire blight, there are resistant varieties. There is also a wide range of severity in different geographic areas. Consider your area at risk if you have moist, humid conditions with temperatures above 60 degrees F during blossoming time for those plants. And, of course, check with your local nurseryman or extension agent.

Soft new growth and water sprouts (those long shoots that quickly grow straight up from the trunk or branch) are especially susceptible. Water sprouts should be removed as soon as possible, even if not infected. Their growth takes vigor away from the rest of the plant. Also, avoid heavy pruning and high nitrogen fertilizers, as that will cause susceptible, soft, new growth.

Do not worry, though. Hearing about plant diseases is a little like reading the Merck Manual - it induces paranoid hypochondria and one can feel overwhelmed by all those horrible pests and diseases about to strike. I know the syndrome. It seems like any languishing plant must have the most awful of problems.

In truth, the right plant in the right place should have very little problems. Keep focused! All plants in all gardens are not hit by all pests and diseases at all times. Gardening is supposed to be fun and a joy. We have armed you with a bit of knowledge to avoid big problems. So, be alert, but also relax, and enjoy yourself.

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