Allan’s Winter Time Pruning Tips

Now that all the blissful distractions of the holidays are over, I can finally refocus on my landscape and garden! As usual, I have started things off by removing all the Christmas lights from my trees, and in the process I found a number of branches that need to be pruned back or removed all together. It’s a reminder that I have a lot of work to do before the sap starts to flow in mid to late February. Winter is a great time to shape up trees since the branches are all visible and accessible. For the next four to six weeks I plan to inspect and prune most of my shade, ornamental and fruit trees and also shear back my shrubs. Most of the tree branches I can reach, but for the biggest trees I will probably hire a professional to remove limbs that you can’t get to from the ground. It is not worth a trip to the hospital to get a stray branch high in a tree without proper training or safety gear.

To follow my own precautions here, I have invested in a telescoping electric chain saw. It’s absolutely the best tool I have for pruning medium sized limbs up in the tree. I can prune trees up to 18 feet and keep my feet firmly on the ground. Before I plug in my pole-pruner, I survey the tree to locate dead or damaged branches, crossing branches and suckers. Most of the time these are easily removed with a hand pruner or long handled lopper since they are normally lower, but if they are up in the tree, then I resort to the conventional pole pruner. The key is to select and save branches around the main trunk of the tree so they are nicely spaced 12″ – 18″ apart and not directly above or below each other. As a tree grows upward I like to clean the trunk of branches from the ground level up to 1/3 of the tree height and let the canopy remain for the upper 2/3 of the tree.

I have found that by allowing branches to remain on the tree trunk at this proportion as it grows the trunk is thicker, stronger, and you end up with a more stable tree.

Horizontal branches resist major damage during ice and snow storms, but you can still end up with damage to horizontal branches if they are allowed to grow too long. So heading back or tipping the branches is also an important way to minimize winter damage on younger trees.

If you are fortunate enough to have fruit trees, then late January through early February is when I suggest you do your annual pruning. Apples and pears don’t require or appreciate a lot of pruning. If you cut them back too far, they seem to just respond with a lot of suckers and water sprouts. So try to limit your branch removal on apples and pears to 15-20% of the canopy, focusing on sucker removal, thinning and cleaning out damaged or dead shoots. If you have peaches, nectarines and plums you can cut off up to 1/3 of the branches with out detrimental effects.

I am asked a lot if one should use pruning paint on a recently cut wound. After more than 30 years of tests researchers and professional arborists have found that the pruning paints do not protect trees from insects, disease or rot. So I suggest they only be used if you want to cover the wound for a better look.

Years ago I had a rather spirited debate with a professional tree pruner who felt the best time to prune trees was after they had leaved out in the spring. It was then that he could see which branches were healthy and which ones were not. I admitted that this was logical, but it was not in the best interest of the tree to allow it to put so much energy and reserves into a new canopy of leaves only to cut them off and haul them away. This ultimately weakens the tree and makes it more vulnerable to attacks by insects and disease since bugs are naturally drawn to fresh tree wounds. Winter is really the best time to prune most trees, with the possible exception of the pine tree. For pines we need to wait until the tree has extended its terminal dormant bud in the spring and then snip it to the desired length before the needles emerge. I still try to remove major branches from the pine when it is cold and the sap is not flowing.

Once all the trees have been pruned, I can turn my attention to my shrubs. Summer flowering shrubs like crapemyrtle, rose of sharon, butterfly bush and all my roses can be pruned before they leaf out in the spring. In addition, all the broadleaf evergreens such as holly, euonymus, boxwood and photinia can receive a shearing before they come out of dormancy. The only shrubs I don’t snip at are the spring flowering shrubs like forsythia, spirea, hydrangeas and lilacs. Hold off on these until after they finish their bloom. For more information on pruning trees check out this website.





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