In most parts of the country, both evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs are currently in a dormant state, meaning they are not in a period of active growth. Dormant pruning for these plants usually takes place in late winter, just before active spring growth occurs, but right now is a fine time to do some maintenance pruning on evergreens, especially if you’d like to use the branches for last-minute holiday decorations.
As a matter of fact, you’re doing your evergreens a small favor by pruning them on a yearly basis like this. Minor pruning of evergreens should take place annually to keep them from growing too large and requiring more drastic pruning techniques down the line.
Evergreens can be pruned for two different reasons: to remove damaged or dead plant growth and to maintain or create a special shape. Although a plant’s natural shape is always best, it’s sometimes necessary to control its size or form. Unless you’re growing a topiary, a well-pruned plant doesn’t look like it has been pruned at all.
Evergreens, in general, don’t require a lot of pruning, so a light annual trimming just before the holidays can become an important part of the maintenance routine for these plants. Keep in mind, though, that not all evergreens respond the same way to pruning. Spruces and firs are terrific candidates for pre-holiday trims, as once the terminal portion of a branch is removed, the lateral (or side) buds will sprout in the spring, covering the pruned area with new growth. Pines, on the other hand, are poor candidates for any pruning. This is because if you remove the stem tips, you’ll eventually end up with nothing but dead stubs. Pines do not have lateral buds and no new growth will fill in the gap.
Arborvitae, holly, junipers, boxwood, yews and most other non-flowering evergreen shrubs can be pruned now, as well, and most tolerate fairly heavy pruning. They’ll pump out plenty of new growth come spring.
Here are a few more tips for winter evergreen pruning:
- Never remove the central leader of any tree, unless there are two of them, in which case you can remove the weakest. This is known as “topping” and is detrimental to the strength and shape of a tree.
- Begin by removing dead and diseased growth first. Then remove crossed branches and those growing toward the plant’s center.
- Don’t prune broad-leaved flowering evergreens, like rhododendrons and azaleas, in early winter. Doing so will remove the flower buds for the coming year.
- Use a clean, sharp pair of pruners to judiciously remove evergreen branches by following the tip of the stem down into the shrub and snipping the branch off just above where it joins another branch. Clean the clippers with a 10-percent bleach solution when moving to a new plant to stave of the spread of disease.
- Never remove more than one-third of the total height and volume of a tree or shrub in any single pruning.
- Never prune trees near power or utility wires. Leave that to the experts!
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