Let the Pruning Begin

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I get a lot of calls in the fall and early winter asking when is the best time to prune trees and shrubs. I usually answer that it’s best to wait until February or March to do any major pruning. This winter has been a good example of why. The warm weather we have experienced this year has caused a few plants to flower a month or more earlier than they normally would. Then, we experience a hard freeze and the flowers get burned by the frost and look ugly. The other thing that has happened on a couple of the plants, in my yard especially, the hydrangeas and the rose bushes have experienced some early bud break followed by a frost. Those young tender leaves get burned. Had I pruned in November or December, I may not have any buds lower down on the stem to leaf out later when there is less danger of frost.

Another question is how and what to prune. That question is a bit more subjective. It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish with the pruning that is being done. If it is a shrub like my hydrangea that needs to be cut back so it doesn’t block the driveway, then focus on cutting the plant back to where it is inside the desired boundary. Make the cuts just above an outward facing bud so when the buds do break in the spring the new growth is directed outward. This creates an open plant that gets sunlight deeper into the plant. The deeper the sunlight reaches into the plant, the more flowers the plant can support. I like lots of flowers on my plants.

Small trees and large shrubs I prune a little differently. My first goal of pruning is to keep the plants healthy so I remove any branches that are dead, damaged or diseased. The next thing I look for are branches that are rubbing against each other or will soon be rubbing. One of these gets removed. Usually, the one that is growing back toward the center of the plant or in a direction that I don’t like is the one that gets removed. The last thing I look to remove is any branch that is growing straight up through the middle of the plant. These usually end up rubbing other branches or shading out the lower limbs and I don’t want either of those to happen.