Some people might have you told you that you aren't supposed to prune during the winter.
Believe it or not, winter is one of the best seasons to prune your deciduous trees and plants because you can see better what needs to be removed.
It just depends on the timing of your winter pruning.
And by "timing" we are referring to 3 plant pre-qualifiers you will learn about in our post to help you determine what can be pruned now.
With our help, you can prune certain trees, shrubs, and flowers as part of your general garden maintenance using our 3-step pruning system called the 3-Pillars of Pruning©.
We'll teach you how below!
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 (Pre-Qualifiers included)
- 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 a cup-o-tea) and let's get started!
(post updated January 2019)
Pruning is a necessary garden maintenance task that can help improve the health and aesthetic look of your plants.
When you prune, you are removing 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©.
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.
Now, Pillar 3 most likely won't be done during the winter because your plant hasn't finished or even started flowering yet AND the last threat of freezing temperatures hasn't passed. These are two of the three Pre-Qualifiers to pruning your plants, with the third being that your plant is overall healthy enough to be pruned. Always check these 3 Pre-Qualifiers before pruning any plant so you have confidence that you won't hurt your plant when you prune.
Mostly during the winter, you will focus on Pillars 1 and 2 for your plant's overall health because Pillar 3 to shape your plant is dependent on when your plant is done flowering, BUT if the Pre-Qualifier of the last threat of frost has past is not met, then you should wait to prune any part of your plant. This is our recommendation based on our own experience and our pruning system.
Types of Pruning
In pruning, there are two types of pruning cuts you can make. 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.
- 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.
- To make "thinning cuts," ask yourself: Is the plant a non-compact grower with long stems between its leaves and stems? If the answer is yes, then make your "thinning cuts". If the answer is no, then you need to reassess your pruning strategy and consider using "heading cuts".
- Examples of plants to use thinning cuts to prune would be Rhododendrons, Pieris, Birch trees, or Fir trees.
- 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", both terms are used to describe "heading" cuts.
- 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.
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.
When you remove material from any plant, the plant redirects its energies to the stems and buds that remain.
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 healthy enough not being stressed.
#1 Rule: 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.
Pruning Plants and Winter Pruning
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 (Pillar 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.
It's a good idea to remove the dead or dying tissues of a plant so it can heal with healthy tissue and not give refuge to insects or diseases that carry or caused the tissue death.
The Pre-Qualifiers mentioned earlier still apply here, but removing dead or diseased tissues will only help improve the plant's health, so worrying about freezing temps or flowering times isn't really a factor for this step (pillar).
Step 2 (Pillar 2)
Look For Rubbing or Crossing Stems or Branches.
Branches that cross or rub together can become the dead or dying branches from step 1 if not removed now.
This occurs when branches are crossing and, as they grow in girth, their tissues begin to meet and start to push against each other.
Over time due to wind movement and other natural forces, the branches start to rub.
As this happens, the tree's bark starts to wear down exposing inner tissues and thus leaving it open for moisture to sneak in and organisms to invade.
Eventually, this whole mess can kill the tissue.
This is where thinking about the Pre-Qualifiers to pruning needs to be applied. Specifically the threat of frost or freezing temps. If the last threat of freezing temperatures hasn't passed yet, then wait to prune out any rubbing or crossing branches. You can wait a little longer to prune so you aren't further stressing out your plant trying to battle freezing temperatures on newly cut tissues, along with everything else.
Removing these crossing branches now will also help with air flow inside the plant's canopy, thus lowering moisture levels that organisms and diseases would otherwise thrive on.
Step 3 (Pillar 3)
Start Shaping and Pruning Your Plant.
After the dead/dying and crossing/rubbing branches have been removed, start thinking of how you would like your plant to look.
Now, WAIT RIGHT THERE! Going back to our 3-Pre-Qualifiers, we need to check if the last threat of freezing temperatures or frost has passed, if the plant has already flowered and completed its reproductive cycle, and the plant is healthy enough overall for shaping. You should have already checked these off if you made it to Step 2 (Pillar 2), but it doesn't hurt to reevaluate a second or third time just to be sure. If these are met, then get in there and get your shaping-on!
Using either the thinning or heading cuts that you learned above, start pruning.
Never cut more than 1/3 of an entire plant as this can stress the plant out and create root die-back.
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. You might still get into Step 3 (Pillar 3) but can still use Thinning Cuts to maintain the plant's natural form by removing only specific whole branches. 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.
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.
Again, remember, never cut more than 1/3 of an entire plant as this can stress the plant out and create root die-back.
Step 4 (not a Pillar of Pruning, but part of garden cleanliness)
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 clean 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.
For a successful winter pruning session, you will need a mix of both hand and power pruning tools.
Whenever possible, we always try to promote environmentally-friendly or efficient tools, such as hand or electric-powered. However, sometimes you just can't get around the massive strength of a gas-powered chainsaw.
By the way, we firmly believe in honest reviews and have not recommended any tools that we do not or have not personally used.
Whether in our own yard, private clients, or our previous landscaping business, these tools have proven indispensable over the years.
While you may not need every tool on the list, most of these tools at your disposal would be handy.
Check out our extensive reviews and recommendations: Best Pruning Tools for 2019 or 7 Best Garden Tools for your Winter Pruning Needs!
Here's our list (each product picture is a clickable link):
As you can see, with the right tools and know-how you can prune your trees, shrubs, and flowers this winter.
By following our 3 Pillars of Pruning© pruning system, along with the three Pre-Qualifiers to pruning, AND armed with your knowledge of thinning vs. heading cuts, you can successfully prune your plants.
Remember to be aware of each plant's characteristics and how each species might react after being pruned.
Pruning Related Posts/Podcasts:
- 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!
Thanks for reading and we hope you are ready for your pruning tasks armed with your new knowledge!
In addition, we have tons of pruning resources available to teach you how and when to prune.
Also, stay tuned for our upcoming Pruning ebook launching soon!
See you in the garden!
~ Sean and Allison
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