Deep Winter: Pruning Time!

A properly pruned tree (R), without crossed branches – Courtesy image

Submitted by New England Nurseries and Betty Sanders, a MassHort board member

It’s time to start pruning. Okay, your property is under two feet of snow. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the trees and shrubs are dormant: you can work on them without setting off an unwanted growth spurt on the plant’s part. That makes February the perfect time to begin your winter pruning.

Here’s what to do.

First, never prune anything you can’t reach from the ground. Leave that work for professionals.

Second use high quality tools. They may cost more to purchase, but they will last a lifetime if properly cared for. And because they are well designed, they will save you a lot of work along the way. Any cutting tool – pruners and loppers – that were not cleaned, oiled and sharpened before being putting away in the fall, need to be readied before you head outside to work. A good chore for snow days!

And a reminder, except where there is damaged or dead wood to be removed, now is not the time to prune spring-blooming trees and shrubs. Doing so will result in cutting off the buds that formed last summer.

How to cut a tree branch properly.

proper pruning cuts to make to reduce the chance of splitting or or otherwise damaging the branch structure - Courtesy image
The proper pruning cuts reduce the chance of splitting or or otherwise damaging the branch structure – Courtesy image

Basic tree pruning’s first rule is Do No Harm. Bad pruning can do more damage than no pruning at all. When in doubt, call in a professional. Clean, sharp tools properly used will leave healthy wood. Re-sharpen pruners as you work and clean tools between cuts or at the very least as you move from one tree to another. Every pruning cut should be at the branch collar-not flush with the trunk and never leaving a stump.

For young, deciduous trees, concentrate on establishing a sturdy framework for later growth. For most trees, this means pruning out all but one strong leader (the center stem) and creating a ladder of sturdy side branches (laterals) that will help determine the shape of the tree as it grows. (see image above)

For mature deciduous trees, first remove all dead, damaged, diseased or dying wood. If you are not certain a branch is dying, leave it until spring when the quantity and quality of new growth will help you determine its viability.

Young trees are easy to shape. Remember, a bird should be able to fly through your tree.

Stage two is to remove unnecessary growth (such as sprouts) and badly placed or congested stems. A good example of something to remove are crossed branches that are currently or will soon rub against each other. The damage that results from rubbing opens the tree to diseases and insects.

Weak branch crotches – where a V-shaped angle exists between two branches – is never as strong as a more horizontal angle. Correct this by removing the branch that is not providing sufficient outward growth. Branches growing into the tree will soon be crossing others.

Thin out any areas of dense heavy growth. Wind and birds should be able to go easily through your tree. Pause frequently to look at the tree. Pruning too little is easily corrected. Pruning too much is not. If in doubt, wait for another day to do more pruning.

You must know about the growth habits of your conifers before pruning. Many, especially pines, have only a single growth spurt each year. These and broad leaved evergreens are usually pruned in late spring after the new growth has appeared.  Some conifers such as yews grow continually throughout the spring and summer and that must be considered when planning to prune. To shorten or control growth on a conifer, cut a branch where it forks into side branches and one of these will dominate, maintaining the shape of the tree. Cut it between side branches and you will be left with an ugly stump that will never produce foliage again.

(The image below shows the proper pruning cuts to make to reduce the chance of splitting or or otherwise damaging the branch structure.)

Read more about Betty at her website:

Owned by the same family for four generations, New England Nurseries is a Bedford garden center

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