Winter Pruning

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After The Snow, It’s Pruning Time

The recent snowfall was indeed heavy and wet, and the accompanying wind brought down many branches, large and small. Using my trusty bamboo pole, I was able to knock a lot of snow off my smaller trees, but our home is surrounded by tall Douglas firs, red cedars, and bigleaf maples, all of which shed upper limbs that were far above my reach.

Even among the smaller trees, my effort were not entirely successful, since I gave up and went to bed at 10:00 pm. During the night, the snow fell quite heavily, erasing the work I had done earlier in the evening. The worst casualty was an elderly Japanese maple between the front entry and the driveway. It has lovely little leaves and a delicate tracery of branches that had not been thinned in years when we moved in.

Finding Hidden Form

Over the years, I have been slowly reshaping this maple, removing tangles of cluttered twiggy growth to reveal the beautiful curving branches. Lacy foliage easily gets muddled looking in dense layers of twiggy growth, so I thin and shape the outer branches carefully to accentuate the natural V shapes within the branching structure.

By working slowly, never removing more than about 10-15% of the tree in a calendar year, I avoided triggering a heavy crop of suckers and water sprouts. I began by deadwooding (see below), then removed several branches that grew over the garage roof. This is never a good idea, since moist shade creates great moss habitat and leaf litter clogs the gutters. Branches that touch buildings are also excellent bridges for ants, spiders and other critters you may not want in your home.

Once the main framework of the tree was established, I pruned lightly each year, carefully raising the skirts that blocked the entryway and hid the tree’s lovely bones. I often prune after a heavy rain, when the wet foliage bends the drooping branches low. That’s when I can tell which branches are most apt to hit somebody in the face; those are the first to go.

Simple Winter Pruning

Though the slack tide of the year is not suitable for planting, it’s a fine time for certain kinds of pruning. This may be a good time to mention that proper pruning is not about size control. The point of proper pruning is to enhance a plant’s health and natural beauty. Really.

Pruning starts with removing dead wood, a peaceful and meditative winter activity. Deadwooding involves the careful removal of all dead branches or twigs. Dead limbs look grey instead of brown or green. If you scrape off a little bark with your thumbnail, there is no lively flush of green under the outer bark.

Dead branches often snap so easily that twiggy plants (like Japanese maples) can be finger-pruned without needing a blade at all. For bigger branches, cut each dead branch cleanly just above the gentle swelling or natural collar of each limb, leaving no stubs. To avoid tearing the bark (a great entry point for diseases), undercut the bottom of each branch shallowly before completing your cut from the top.

Pruning Shrubs: Open The Core To Light and Air

In my yard, several shrubs were broken by large branches falling from nearby trees last night. To clean up a damaged shrub, again begin by removing all deadwood. Many deciduous shrubs are clumping or thicketing in habit. These can be cut back hard in late winter to renew them from the base or sheared more lightly to remove seedheads and twiggy growth. With such shrubs, pruning helps open the plants’ core to light and air, promoting healthy new growth.

Prune shrubs with a tree-like shape, such as witch hazels, camellias, and some azaleas and rhododendrons, as if they were indeed a tree, emphasizing the natural branching form. This requires judicious thinning of crowded branches rather than random whacking. After deadwooding, eliminate any branches that rub on or cross another. Take off the weaker or uglier of each pair, removing the whole branch with a straight cut just above the branch collar on the main trunk or mother branch.

Damaged or broken branches can be removed in the same way: Undercut first, then make flush cuts just above the branch collar. Never leave stubs above the collar; these are classic entry points for rot and disease and ugly to boot.

Eliminate Water Shoots And Hangers

Next, clean up the branches by removing any water shoots. These are pretty easy to spot, since they stick straight up from the mother branch, rather than curving off gracefully to either side. Left alone, they become thick and strong but distort and disfigure the natural shape of the tree or treelike shrub.

Also remove any hangers, the often-curving branches that come directly off the bottom of a branch. Leave the small branches and twigs that come off the sides of mother branches unless they cross or rub another as discussed above.

Before removing lower branches that may be in the way, try this simple clean-up method, which may be all you need to do. Freed of deadwood and excess shoots, the lowest branches rise up, lifting the tree’s skirts considerably.

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