Just because the ground is covered with snow and the grass is not growing does not mean it is time to forget about your landscape. In fact, the winter months are one of the most important, and often neglected, times of year for landscape maintenance.
Dormant pruning (typically December – March) is one of the most beneficial actions to ensure the overall health, structure, and appearance of your trees and shrubs. Plants are far more receptive to pruning while they are dormant because it places less stress on the plant allowing the cuts to heal faster and promote healthy, vigorous growth upon the break of dormancy. Damaged and diseased wood is also much easier to identify while a plant is dormant and because the plant is not actively growing, the chances of spreading an infectious disease to other plants is greatly reduced.
Proper pruning techniques are equally as important as the time of year when the pruning takes place. Pruning should always be done with sharp properly maintained pruners, loppers, and/or saws. Cuts made with dull blades can leave unnecessary damage that will delay the healing process and may be an avenue for infectious diseases to enter the plant. Cuts should always be made just above the buds or collars at an angle parallel with the bud or adjacent branch. Larger branches in trees should be pruned using a three cut process to avoid bark tearing as the limb falls to the ground.
Start by identifying any dead, damaged, or diseased wood within the plant and remove that down to healthy wood. Next identify rubbing, crossing, paralleling, or otherwise redundant branching and remove those as well. Once this wood has been removed the overall structure of the plant will be more open and healthy growth will be promoted from within the plant as opposed to only from the tips where plants are often (over)sheared. The final step in the pruning process is shaping to develop the desired size and form.
Pruning vs. shearing; the overuse of shears is one of the most common landscape maintenance mistakes made by both homeowners and even professional landscape maintenance crews. Plants that are not meant to be sheared into formal shapes often develop diseases and unhealthy growth after years of being sheared rather than properly pruned. By practicing dormant renewal pruning over the course of a few years these plants can usually be restored to their native shape and form; the need for shearing a properly pruned plant is often eliminated entirely.
Remember that not all plants bloom on new growth and many develop their flower buds on the previous season’s growth (e.g. Forsythias, Lilacs, Azaleas, and some Hydrangeas) and heavy dormant pruning may significantly affect the following season’s color showing.
Safety comes first when performing any type of pruning, especially tree pruning where heights and ladders may be involved. Gloves, safety glasses, long pants and sleeves should be worn at all times and all pruning equipment should be well maintained and sharp.
Keep in mind that pruning truly is an art and practice makes perfect. Happy pruning!