You are not supposed to prune in the winter.
Or, are you?
Believe it or not, winter is one of the best seasons to prune your deciduous trees and plants. It just depends on the timing of your winter pruning.
With our help, you can prune certain trees, shrubs, and flowers in your garden as part of your general garden maintenance right now.
By the end of this post, you should understand:
- Why pruning your garden in the winter is acceptable, even preferable
- Pruning best practices using our 3 Pillars of Pruning© system
- Our time-tested recommendations for winter pruning tools and links to buy now!
Yes, we realize it is cold outside (well, depending on where you live) but don't let that stop you!
Go on, get your coat, grab some gloves and let's get started!
(updated January 2019)
Winter Pruning Basics
Before we list out our steps, let's cover some essential information.
What exactly is winter pruning and why is it important?
Pruning is the removal of branches, stems, leaves, flowers, and other plant tissues in order to:
- eliminate dead or dying tissue,
- reduce or eliminate branches and stems that may be crossing or rubbing, and
- to improve the aesthetic look of the plant.
These three reasons to prune our plants, even during the winter, is what we call our 3-Pillars of Pruning.
When you remove material from any plant, the plant redirects its energies to the stems and buds that remain. Rule of thumb: Trees and shrubs should only be cut back after they are done flowering, the last threat of frost has passed for the year (spring), and they are overall healthy enough not being stressed.
#1 Rule of thumb: Trees and shrubs should only be cut back after they are done flowering.
Plants that bloom in the Spring should not be pruned this winter because they have already set and developed next spring and summer's flower buds. This holds true in general for any flowering tree or shrub, like Rhododendrons, Dogwood Trees, or Azaleas. On the other hand, if you don't mind having fewer flowers this year, then go ahead, knock yourself out and prune away.
Looking for Pruning Tools?
Types of Pruning Cuts
There are two types of pruning cuts you can make. They are:
- Thinning Cuts: When you selectively cut single limbs or stems off a plant all the way back to its point of attachment. This doesn't necessarily mean the whole limb; maybe just a section or branch. This type of pruning is best for most trees, especially when creating "scaffolding" or branch structures. Creating space between the limbs can give a more even, balanced look to the tree or shrub.
- Heading Cuts: When you selectively cut limbs or stems not at their point of attachment nor near other growth points. This type of pruning is best for compact and dense growing plants which react well to shearing or hedging, another term for "heading" cuts.
It's important to understand these two types of pruning cuts because they directly relate to how the specific plant grows and also how it will react to pruning. To make "thinning cuts," ask yourself: Is the plant a non-compact grower with long stems between its leaves and stems? Examples of this would be most Rhododendrons, Pieris, Birch trees, or Fir trees.
To make "heading cuts," ask yourself: Is the plant a compact grower with short stem lengths? Or, does it have short distances between its leaves? Examples of this would be a Boxwood (Buxus) shrub or a Juniper (Juniperus) shrub/ground cover.
Here's an important guideline, different plants will react differently to each of the two pruning cuts. For example, some plants will have future growth just below the cut at the nearest growing point; other plants will burst with a mass of new growth at the cut. Be sure to know the plant's characteristics and how each species will react after being pruned.
Pruning is a necessary garden maintenance task that can help improve the health and aesthetic look of your plants.
Pruning is defined as the act of removing branches, stems, leaves, flowers, and other plant tissues, in order to follow the "3 Pillars of Pruning©."
Upon removing material from any plant, the plant will redirect its energy to the stems and buds that remain. That's why you definitely need all the best pruning tools for the best health of your plants.
The "3 Pillars of Pruning" refer to why you should prune your plants and are as follows:
- Pillar 1: Pruning out dead/diseased plant material.
- Pillar 2: Prune out crossing or rubbing branches or stems.
- Pillar 3: Prune to shape or form plants.
There are other reasons to prune, such as for safety reasons, but the "3 pillars" are critical to follow for overall garden health and maintenance.
Types of Pruning (Cuts)
Thinning Cuts vs. Heading Cuts
When you prune, you make two kinds of cuts, either thinning cuts or heading cuts.
Thinning Cuts: When you selectively cut single limbs or stems off a plant all the way back to its point of attachment. This doesn't necessarily mean the whole limb; maybe just a section or branch.
This type of pruning is best for most trees, especially when creating "scaffolding" or branch structures. Creating space between the limbs can give a more even, balanced look to the tree or shrub.
Heading Cuts: When you selectively cut limbs or stems NOT at their point of attachment nor near other growth points.
This type of pruning is best for compact and dense growing plants which react well to shearing or hedging, another term for "heading" cuts.
For more on these two types of cuts, read our post on winter pruning.
Rose Pruning (REMOVE?)
How to Trim Overgrown Bushes
How to Prune Deciduous Trees
How to Best Prune Your Garden This Winter:
Now let's get to it! Using your new knowledge of pruning basics let's move on to the steps of how to prune.
Step 1: Inspect For Dead or Dying Stems or Branches.
Winter is a good time to find dead or dying plant branches, as the leaves have dropped away from most deciduous trees and shrubs. Evergreens will require more time to find these pesky dead or dying plant tissues. Pack your patience.
Step 2: Look For Rubbing or Crossing Stems or Branches.
These can later become the dead or dying branches from step 1 if not removed now. This is because when the branches do cross, as they grow in girth, their tissues will meet and start to push against each other. Then, with wind moving the branches you get the rubbing. The tree's bark starts to wear down exposing inner tissues and leaving it open for organisms to invade. Eventually, this whole mess kills the tissue. Removing these crossing branches now will also help with air flow inside the plant's canopy, thus lowering moisture levels that organisms would otherwise thrive on.
Pro-tip: Never cut more than 1/3 of an entire plant as this can stress the plant out and create root die-back.
Step 3: Start Shaping and Prune
After the dead/dying and crossing/rubbing branches have been removed, start thinking of how you would like your plant to look. Using either the thinning or heading cuts that you learned above, start pruning. Something to keep in mind is that some gardeners like to keep the natural form of the plant and feel that no further pruning is needed beyond step 2 above. If you feel the plant needs to be lowered, brought in, or raised up from the ground, then continue with your cuts. Use your discretion for each plant species.
Pro-Tip: Before you make your pruning cut, track the stem or limb back to where you want to make the cut and try to imagine the plant without that material. If you can't imagine the plant without this material you want to cut out, then don't do it. Maybe look to cut only half of the limb and then reassess.
Step 4: Clean Up and Dispose of Cut Material
Either while you prune or when you finish pruning, gather up your cut material and dispose of it in your debris bin. A few helpful tools might be a rake or a pitchfork and your tarp. If you have one, a blower can be used to clean up the smaller pieces giving your walkways a professional look.
A fun, unique idea might be to use larger branches or other pieces as yard art or edging.
If you are chipping the material, the chipped debris could become mulch in your garden beds used as a weed barrier. This is definitely an opportunity to get creative, so try it out! Give your garden that unique look that sets you apart from your neighbors.
Winter Pruning Tool List
And lastly, garden tools. For a successful winter pruning session, you will need access to a few basic garden items. While you may not need every tool on the list below, most of these tools at your disposal would be handy. Also, some of the tools below are linked to our favorite brands that we could not imagine life in the garden without. For more info on the below list read our Winter Pruning: 7 Best Garden Tools for your Winter Pruning Needs! Here's our list:
- Corona ClassicCut Bypass Hand pruners
- Fiskars 28 inch Bypass Loppers
- Fiskars 7 inch Folding Hand Saw
- Husqvarna Backpack Blower
- Leaf Metal Fan Rake
- Bullly Tools Bow or Garden Rake by Bully Tools
- Pitch Fork by Truper
- Pole saw, Electric by Sun Joe
- Leather Gloves by OZERO
- Men's Outdoor Work Jacket by Carhartt
- Order Warm Food through Amazon!
Winter Pruning Related Posts/Podcasts:
- Winter Pruning: 7 Best Garden Tools For Your Winter Pruning Needs
- Ep. 9: Fall Pruning Do's and Don'ts
- DIY Garden Minute Ep. 2: Pruning vs. Dead-Heading
- DIY Garden Minute Ep. 10: 3 Pillars of Pruning Revealed!
That's all for now. Thanks for reading and we hope we inspired you to begin tackling some of your winter pruning needs. Let us know if you have any questions or comments anytime, we would love to help.
Make sure to watch for next week's blog post where we will discuss the seven BEST tools you NEED right now to complete these winter pruning tasks. Read the rest of our posts here! Better yet, subscribe to our blog and follow us on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter so you don't miss a thing!
Thanks and see you in the garden!
Sean and Allison, Spoken Garden.
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