In the dead of winter, it’s sometimes a little hard to muster the courage to even think about going out and working in the garden. These months when trees and shrubs go dormant, however, are an optimal time for pruning and maintenance of a number of trees and shrubs.
When leaves have dropped on deciduous plants, it’s much easier to see their branching structure and make decisions to benefit the long-term health and growth habit of the plant. Additionally, most pathogens are as dormant as the trees themselves, so winter pruning brings a much lower risk of damage to vulnerable tissues.
Start by removing dead or damaged limbs, as these are reservoirs for pests and disease. Next, look for crossing or crowded branches and unwanted water sprouts (unwelcome rapid branch growth from the trunk). Trees and shrubs, especially those that fruit, fare best when they can “breathe,” so keep the interior of the branching structure ventilated and spacious.
Pruning equipment should be kept clean between cuts by wiping it with a diluted bleach solution to prevent the transmission of pathogens.
Exceptions to the winter pruning recommendation are spring flowering shrubs, like lilac and forsythia, because winter pruning would remove their potential blossoms. Also avoid pruning conifers, like pines, in the winter because they grow from the ends of their branches. Prune all of these plants in late-spring instead. Otherwise, winter pruning generally provokes vigorous spring growth.
- Shrubs like blueberries, currants and gooseberries fruit on wood that is 3 years old or younger, so to keep them productive, prune out the old growth.
- Deciduous fruiting trees, like apples, will bear fruit more heavily with winter pruning, as individual branches are given better light exposure with some thinning of the canopy.
- Summer-blooming flowering shrubs, like butterfly bushes and repeat-flowering roses, can be provoked to produce more blossoms if pruned almost to the ground in late winter.
- Cane berries, like raspberries, and vines, like grapes, produce fruit on 2-year-old wood. The branches that produced fruit last year will not be productive again, so remove them in Winter.