Fall and Winter Pruning: How to Do it Right

Winter Pruning

Fall and winter pruning are are best done when most plants and trees are getting ready to go dormant. Plan pruning during late fall to help improve the shape, form and growth of garden landscapes. Think of it as preventive maintenance. Early pruning, during the formative years of trees and shrubs, many problems can be averted.

1. Winter Pruning promotes plant health

Corrective pruning will help promote plant health in the landscape. Remove dead and dying branches that have been injured by disease or severely infested by insects. Remove any branches that rub together and cause damage to the plant’s bark.

Use pruning sealant, on larger limbs and branches, to prevent excessive sap flow and exclude moisture penetration while the wound heals. Pruning sealant also helps reduce the attraction many insects have to open exposed wounds. Look for the newer latex versions of sealer instead of older asphalt formulations.

Fall pruning can help your garden’s natural appearance. Take care to avoid shearing shrubs into tight geometrical forms that can adversely affect flowering. Altering a plant’s natural form can be necessary if the plant needs to be confined or trained for a specific location. When plants are pruned correctly, it’s difficult to recognize that they have been pruned at all.

Proper pruning can help: control plant size, keep evergreens correctly proportioned, or remove unnecessary branches, waterspouts, suckers, and undesirable fruiting structures that detract from the plant’s appearance.

Pruning can help make the landscape a safer place. Remove any dead trees and branches to keep your garden safe during winter wind, snow, and storms. Prune weak or narrow-angled tree branches that overhang homes, parking areas, and sidewalks. Carefully check for any falling limbs that could cause injury to people, or create property damage.

Eliminate branches that interfere with: streetlights, traffic signals, and overhead wires. Avoid pruning near electrical and utility wires. Utility companies or city maintenance workers will gladly prune these areas. Locate and prune branches that will obscure driver vision at traffic intersections. Prune shrubs or tree branches that obscure the entry points to the home.

2. Pruning fruit trees vs. evergreen trees

Prune during the late dormant season for best results. Pruning in late fall or winter, just before spring growth starts. Another advantage of dormant pruning is that it’s easier to see the structure of the tree and make pruning decisions. Pruning at the proper time can avoid certain disease and physiological problems: Fall pruning will avoid oak wilt disease. Prune apple trees, including flowering crabapples, mountain ash, hawthorns and shrub cotoneasters in late winter (January through April: depending on your climate zone). Spring or summer pruning increases chances for infection and spread of the bacterial disease such as fire blight.

Trees and shrubs that bloom early in the growing season on last year’s growth like apricots, cherry, and lilac should be pruned immediately after they finish blooming:

Shrubs grown primarily for their foliage rather than showy flowers should be pruned in spring and before growth begins.

Postpone pruning shrubs that bloom on new growth may until spring and before growth begins. Plants such as clematis and shrub roses should be pruned back to live wood. Prune those hardier shrubs: spireas and hydrangeas to the first pair of buds above the ground.

Evergreens or conifers usually require only minor pruning. Different types of evergreens should be pruned according to their individual growth patterns.

Spruces and firs may be pruned during any season. Although it is best to prune them in late winter, before growth begins.

Pines seldom need pruning. To promote more dense growth, remove up to two-thirds of the length of newly expanded candles. But, do not prune further back than the current year’s growth.

Arborvitae, junipers, yews, and hemlocks grow continuously, so prune only to correct growth defects.

3. Pruning hedges

Mature hedges will need to be pruned more often than newly planted ones. Prune new growth back when once the hedge reaches the desired height. Prune to within 2 inches of the last pruning. Hedges may need to be pruned twice a year, in spring and again in mid-summer; to keep them dense and attractive. Properly pruned hedges will be wider at the base than at the top, to allow all parts to receive sunlight.

4. Prune with the correct tools

Use the correct tool for pruning. Keep those tools maintained and sharp for improved performance.

Pruning shears are the most versatile tool for pruning. A good pair will cut branches up to 3/4 inches in diameter.

Lopping shears, which are similar to pruning shears, their long handles provide greater leverage needed to cut branches up to 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Choose a pair with compound cutting blades.

Hedge shears are made for pruning hedges, and nothing else.

Limb saws are helpful for cutting branches much over 1 inch in diameter. Many types of saws are available. Choose tri-cut or razor tooth pruning saws to cut through larger branches — up to 4 inches in diameter.

Pole saws will provide an extended reach for higher branches. Fitted with a long and extendable handle they must be used carefully for a clean cut.

Now that you are well equipped, let’s go prune.


Pruning shears
Lopping shears
Hedge shears
Limb saw
Pole saw
Pruning sealant

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