Winter can be a good time to prune certain trees and shrubs

Pruning is an important task to perform on our landscaping. Too often it is done in an untimely manner. Many folks prune their trees and shrubs based on convenience instead of what is in the best interest of the plants.

With very few exceptions, fall is a bad time to prune. Pruning has a tendency to encourage growth. This can make tender plants much more susceptible to winterkill. For deciduous trees hardy in colder climates that usually isn’t a problem, but fall pruning can make them more prone to disease.

We are now entering a good window for several reasons. Trees and shrubs should be fully dormant by February. It’s easy to observe branching patterns of deciduous plants when the leaves are gone. We can choose which limbs we wish to keep and which ones we’d like to eliminate.

Branches growing straight up or straight down should be cut off. So should branches growing back toward the center of the tree or shrub. We want all leaves to have access to light. This will keep them from becoming parasitic and eventually dying. It’s also important to encourage wide-angle branches. They’re stronger.

Some plants flower in spring. If preserving bloom is important, we might wish to wait until after flowers go by. If flowering isn’t an issue, we can prune in winter and not limit a plant’s beauty.

Certain plants, such as maples, birches and grapes are heavy sap producers. We have to be careful not to prune them too late in winter as they will bleed and this makes them look unsightly. It can make them more prone to insects and disease but it rarely kills them. I suggest pruning high sap plants once leaves first appear but before canopy develops.

Sometimes evergreen plants get ahead of us and outgrow their space. When this happens to coniferous plants, often the only remedy is removal. The same is usually true for boxwoods.

Broadleaf shrubs and trees can often be severely pruned and respond terrifically. The problem is that if we do it too soon we have to look at butchered plants all winter. They also could break dormancy and experience winterkill.

When performing renewal pruning, always wait as long as you can. Evergreen and semi-evergreen plants like Photinia, Osmanthus, privet, Abelia and Nandina can be severely pruned and recover to look better than ever. Around here I like to prune most of these in late February. Landscape roses can be pruned then too.

Generally, when we trim plants we always want to cut back to a bud or a fork. We never want to leave a stub as this affects health as much as it hinders appearance. When we prune to a bud we need to be cognizant of bud orientation, as this will affect the direction of the new growth.

The recent ice storm might have damaged several of your trees and shrubs. Removing unsightly or damaged branches is often necessary regardless of the season. If it’s already broken, cut it off cleanly.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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