Pruning in the winter months before plants are actively growing is essential for plant health—it allows for the removal of old, tired growth, creating space for the plant to reinvigorate itself.
February is the perfect time for dormant pruning when buds on branches are swelling just enough to help indicate which parts of the shrub are viable and which parts may have died off in the winter.
Dormant Pruning vs. Summer Pruning or Shearing
When you prune in the Winter, you are pruning towards the ideal shape and form of the plant. Dormant pruning seeks to remove thick, tangled growth and crossing branches, creating space for light and air once the plants leaf out again. Thinning the plants back to the strongest stems provides space for new shoots and blooms, and for fruits to comfortably hang.
Dormant, regenerative pruning is more concerned with the internal structure of the plant, as opposed to shearing where the tips of the plant are cut to show an even, uniform face. Whereas summer pruning is useful for controlling or limiting growth, winter pruning encourages growth.
Winter Pruning Evergreen Shrubs
Many evergreen shrubs like Camellias, Rhododendrons, and Pieris bloom in the Spring, so the outermost growth should not be pruned in the Winter. However, these shrubs are ideal candidates for winter pruning to focus on the removal of dead branches. Removing dead branches will provide adequate air circulation and improve the appearance of evergreen shrubs while they are in bloom.
Hedges can be sheared in the Winter if they aren’t too wet and if temperatures are above freezing. This helps crisp up the edges of the plant, leaving them looking tidy until they start to push new growth in the Spring.
Deciduous Shrubs & Trees to Dormant Prune
Roses require dormant, winter pruning—the harder the pruning, the stronger the regrowth will be. Twig dogwoods, grown for their vibrant stem color, should be pruned hard at the end of Winter, as the new growth they produce in the Summer will provide even better color the following year.
Fruiting trees like apples, pears, and plums should also be pruned in the Winter to create space for the coming season’s crop. The buds that will produce flowers and then fruits are fatter and scalier than the slim buds that will produce leaves. Stems with only leaf buds can be pruned back to junctions that carry the swollen buds of the fruiting stems.
Maples can be pruned in the Winter to enhance the beautiful structure of the plant and remove any dead branches that are a result of winterkill.
Deciduous shrubs that were incorrectly sheared in the past can be thinned out when they are leafless, and dormant pruning will help return them to their ideal shape.
Though the range of deciduous trees and shrubs to prune is broad, the same basic principles apply regardless of the plant.
BEFORE DORMANT PRUNING
AFTER DORMANT PRUNING
How to Dormant Prune Shrubs & Trees
1. Clean and sharpen your full set of pruning tools, including pruning shears/secateurs, loppers, and pruning saw. You should never strain to prune and should always use the right tool for the job to avoid tearing the branches or bark.
- Use pruning shears for branches under ½-inch diameter
- Use loppers for branches under 1 ½-inch diameter
- Use a pruning saw for branches above 1 ½-inch diameter
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2. Identify any dead branches and remove them entirely, pruning all the way back to healthy, viable branches or the base of the plant, as needed. The dead branches will feel brittle when you move them with your hand, will appear greyer than the other branches, and will not end in any leaves or have swollen buds.
3. Remove branches that are crossing each other. Crossing branches create wounds and congestion inside of the plant and should be removed. Select the weaker of the two branches and remove it back to a stem junction, leaf node, or set of buds.
4. Step back and consider the appearance of the plant, and make selective cuts to a stem junction or a set of leaves or buds to create balance. If a branch is too high, hangs at an odd angle, or is going off in a direction all on its own, consider pruning it back. Asymmetry may be desired depending on the placement of the shrub and the style of your garden, but in general, seek to prune towards a uniform, open shape.
Pruning in the winter creates valuable space inside of the crown of the plant and stimulates strong regrowth. Turning your attention outdoors to address the form and health of your shrubs in the winter months is always time well spent!