A good pruning in the winter will ensure healthy growth in the spring for your deciduous trees and shrubs, including fruit trees, hydrangeas, azaleas, and roses. Here’s how to trim them without stressing yourself or the plants out.
While you may think you’re done in the garden when winter comes around, it’s actually the best time to sharpen your loppers and secateurs and give your deciduous plants a good pruning. Pruning not only helps you shape your trees and shrubs to a form of your liking, it also allows the plants to send out faster and healthier growth in the spring. Doing so in the winter is ideal because the plants are dormant and it’s easier to see where you need to cut.
Before You Snip
Choose a day that's relatively mild and dry. Not only will it make it more comfortable for you, it’s also best for your plants.
Clean and sterilize your tools before you start cutting and between cutting each of the plants. Doing so will prevent the spread of diseases from one tree or shrub to another. Use a solution of rubbing alcohol and water to clean your tools and kill off any lingering diseases. You should also be sure to sharpen your loppers and secateurs before you start cutting, as you’ll get a cleaner cut and it’ll be less traumatic for the plant.
Wear gloves and eye protection when pruning. Safety glasses (or another from of eye protection) will help protect your eyes from falling branches. Always be careful when using sharp tools. If you plan to use a chainsaw, make sure you’re comfortable using it before you start cutting. If the job is bigger than you had expected, get help from a professional.
Pruning may seem overwhelming at first — where should you begin? You can start by removing all of the dead branches from the tree. Then, remove any diseased branches, suckers (unbranched stems that grow from the base of the tree), and water sprouts (unbranched stems that grow from the branches). Once these are all removed, you’ll have a clearer view of where to cut next.
You’ll want to prune all the way back to the branch or at least to a bud. Leaving stubs will not only encourage disease, it may also harm the tree. If you’re removing large branches, cut back to the collar, not all the way back to the trunk. This will allow the wood to heal properly.
As you cut, you’ll want to use either heading cuts or thinning cuts. Heading cuts allow you to dictate the course of new growth. Thinning cuts entail removing whole branches to help improve air circulation in a tree or shrub and ensure the surrounding, healthier growth gets more sunlight. These are typically made parallel to the closest main branch or trunk.
Ideally, you’ll want to maintain each tree's main branches (the ones that support most of the growth and maintain the basic shape of the tree). In order to support healthy growth, you’ll want to ensure proper air circulation. One way to do this is to remove any branches that cross the others. These intersecting branches may inhibit growth and encourage disease.
Next, you’ll want to thin the canopy of the tree from the center out. Remove any branches that may inhibit air circulation, focusing on any particularly dense areas of growth. You’ll want to remove one-quarter of the growth (or less) to encourage healthier growth in the new year.
As you prune, always take a step back to survey your work. While you’ll want to remove all of the unwanted or unnecessary growth, you also want to make sure you don’t prune the tree back too much. Taking a minute to assess what you’ve cut, especially after removing a large branch, will help ensure you don’t overcut the plant.
Keep an Eye Out For…
When you prune, you’ll get a great look at your tree or shrub. For that reason, this is also the best time to look for potential pest and disease issues. If you spot them early, it'll be easier to treat them.
Moth eggs are a particularly prominent bug issue you'll want to look out for. Several moth species, including gypsy moths, lay their eggs on branches during the winter. Remove them while you’re pruning, either by cutting the branches (if necessary) or removing the egg clusters by hand.
What You’ll Want to Prune This Winter
Azaleas can be pruned in the winter or during the growing season. During the winter, you'll want to focus on shaping the shrub by cutting the stems.
Roses, including the climbing varieties, can be cut back to about half their size. Remove all dead and diseased growth and wood that's smaller than the thickness of a pencil. Every few years, you may want to do a more severe prune and remove old branches.
Hydrangeas can be pruned in the late winter. If you have smooth hydrangeas, you’ll want to cut them back to the ground. If you have bigleaf or oakleaf hydrangeas, remove the growth to the double set of buds.
You can also remove the dead wood from your crape myrtles over the winter. Of course, if you have a cold-hardy variety in your yard, you may not need to prune them at all.
For lilacs, you’ll want to cut all the dead canes and crossing branches. Additionally, you’ll want to remove up to one-third of the previous year's growth.
Fruit trees, including cherries, plums, and crabapples, should always be pruned to ensure proper air circulation and healthy fruit growth. Begin with the trees that bloom the latest and work your way up to the ones that bloom first. While you’re pruning, you’ll not only want to remove all dead wood, but you’ll also want to assess your tree for the branches that will support the healthiest fruit.