Spring is when most of us want to get outside and catch up with tree and shrub pruning. But for many species, the best time to prune limbs and branches is in winter.
Why Prune in Winter
Deciduous trees and shrubs go dormant in the winter, dropping their leaves. Barren twigs and branches allow you to clearly see the overall structure compared to when the tree has leafed-out. Stressed or broken parts can be clearly identified and removed. Trees and shrubs are also less vulnerable to air and waterborne disease during colder months.
Which Trees and Shrubs Not to Prune
Flowering trees and shrubs are the exception to winter pruning. Winter trimming will remove the buds set during the previous fall and winter, eliminating the beautiful flowers you’ve waited all winter to see! Shrubs that should not be pruned in winter are forsythia, dogwood, lilac, weigela, and viburnum. Trim these shrubs immediately after flowering.
Best Practices for Removing or Trimming
Prune on a dry day in late winter. Sanitize shears or saws when moving from one plant to the next to reduce the spread of disease on your property.
There are generally four methods for tree pruning in winter:
- Cleaning: Removal of dead, diseased, and/or broken parts
- Raising: Pruning to provide vertical clearance
- Reduction: Pruning to decrease height and/or spread of canopy or canopy parts
- Thinning: Selective pruning to reduce density of live branches
Identify What Needs Removal
A primary objective in tree pruning should be to increase the amount of light and air passing through the tree’s crown by removing crowded, interior branches. Any branches that grow straight up, crossing over or rubbing against other branches should be removed or pruned back. Cut branches back to the node, which is a small swell where one tree branch attaches to the next.
If you suspect part of a tree or limb has died during the winter, immediately contact an arborist…, especially if home or property is threatened. Do not wait until the tree resumes spring growth, with a heavy leaf canopy, to determine tree health.
Problems to Watch For
If branches or limbs grow at a close angle to one another, bark may be growing between the two. This may be a weak point for the tree. The limbs may then be cabled for support, which help eliminate limb stress and damage or breakage during winter storms. An accredited tree service or landscape company can install either wedge-grips/cable or Arbor-Plex systems so you can enjoy your tree without worrying about storm damage.
Another potential problem spot is where two limbs of the same size branch out from the main trunk. These are called co-dominant leaders. In a healthy tree, one limb becomes dominant over time, but when neither leader is dominant, the tree is vulnerable to breakage. Maples, oaks, and conifers are susceptible to co-dominant leaders, and therefore suffer breaks and limb loss during winter storms.
If you spot a co-dominant leader early on, prune it away. If the limb is large, consider hiring a professional arborist to trim your tree and reduce the risk of breakage.
Water sprouts develop after you prune or where a limb is removed. They steal important energy from the main tree or shrub. You may leave one water sprout and train it to replace the missing limb, or prune them all away to preserve the tree’s shape.
Tree Care After a Storm
Brush snow off of trees and shrubs before snow freezes since the weight can cause limbs to snap or deform. Gently lift branches upward with a broom and shake the snow off, starting near the top of the plant. If the branches are covered in ice or hardened snow, wait until temperatures rise above freezing. Inspect your trees and shrubs after a storm, removing any wood that has fallen.
Prune back broken branches, making a cut where they join the main limb. If you need tree work on large trees or you’re not quite sure where to start, call a professional tree service. A tree company will clean up the storm damage, prune the tree for good tree health, make cosmetic adjustments, and inspect other branches that appear likely to come down in the next storm.
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