by Grady Cobb, Maintenance Foreman
The winter season is brutally cold, and we usually don’t like to do much outside. We also are not very active in our landscapes other than pushing snow off our driveways, while thinking “why did I choose to live here?”. While most of that is true, there is one thing that you can do in your landscape during winter that can have lasting health effects on your plants—winter pruning. Winter is a good time of year to do some pruning/thinning on most of your plants as they are asleep, and most of their energy is stored in the root system of the plant which is getting ready for the upcoming year. In this article, I will go through why winter is the best time of year to prune/thin out most of your plants, the health reasons why it’s good to prune/thin out plants, and what you need to look out for while you prune/thin out your plants during this season.
Our Expert Pruning Process
Since winter is the season of dormancy, and the season usually right after most of the plants are done blooming, it is the best time to prune or thin out a particular plant. It’s also the time of year when most of the plants energy is focused in the root systems and not in the branches where they are trying to either grow more branches or flowers depending on the plant. This in turn means that you can prune or thin out more of the plant without putting too much stress on it compared to the growing seasons. With that said, you also need to know the plant and when it blooms because usually the spring blooming plants, like a lilac, are about to start sending up their energy to bloom in the upcoming spring season—which is not a good time to really thin or prune heavily as it will put a lot of stress on the plant causing it to skip blooming and instead focus on just staying alive. With that in mind, you should only really remove no more than two major branches and wait until after the spring flowering plants are done blooming to finish the job. If the plants are summer or fall blooming plants then you can remove more branches from them because they don’t send up their blooming energy until later in the year.
Now, since it is winter time and most plants do not have leaves on them, you can clearly see the branch structure of the plant. This allows us to see where the dead and or diseased branches are, where branches are either crossing or rubbing up against each other, and where the oldest and youngest branches are in the plant. These are the type of branches we need to look out for while we prune/thin out the plants because they greatly impact the overall health of the plant.
When we start the winter pruning process of a plant we first look out for the dead branches. It doesn’t really affect the plant negatively when you remove these types of branches, as you’re basically trimming the “hair” of the plant. Sometimes this is all the plant needs done to allow for more light and air into the plant so that it can be rejuvenated by the sun’s rays to encourage new growth to replace the old, dead growth. This also helps prevent any mold or disease from establishing within the plants leaves or branches, which is the second type of branch we look out for during the winter pruning process.
Diseases and molds come in all shapes, sizes, and colors like a canker on the branch of a tree or white pine weevil on an evergreen tree. In order to prevent any further harm or damage to the tree, we remove the infected branch down to the closet unaffected area of the plant. When you prune the infected branch off you should make a cut about a quarter inch away from where the branches break off from each other. This allows for dieback to occur without affecting the health of the uninfected branches.
Cross branches are the third branch type in the process of winter pruning that we remove from the plant as it can rub up against other branches causing open wounds to form. The open wounds then attract insects and diseases to the plant where they can create more stress on the plant causing its immune system to weaken and possibly die later on. After going through and removing those three types of branches, we have to step back and see how much of the plant we have removed already. We have to keep in mind while pruning of the 1/3 rule which is if you remove more than a third of the plant you are going to put the plant in a lot of stress. Once we have determined that we have not removed more than a third of the plant, then the last type of branch we go after is the old branches. Keep in mind the natural shape of the plant you are pruning. We don’t want one side of the plant to be visibly different from the rest of the plant nor have a big hole where there shouldn’t be one! In this part of the pruning process, we probably won’t need to take out a lot of old branches as we probably have taken out a lot already from the prior steps.