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December 11, 2018   
‘Tis the Season  November 28, 2006

Fall is prime time for pruning flowering trees. Most are ready for pruning 30 days after blooms and fruit are gone.

Late winter may be the best time of all for many species. The lack of foliage makes it easy to approach branches and limbs. As with all rules, of course, there are exceptions. Many flowering trees are forming buds by late winter—trimming flowering trees then can rob a site of flowers or fruit later. Additionally, maples, dogwoods, walnut and elm will drip sap if pruned during the winter months.

A book like Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening and Landscaping Techniques or the Sunset Garden Book can help you with species-specific tips for trimming and care.

What to Prune in Winter

Pruning in winter—during the dormant season—invigorates many trees and shrubs because it leaves the plants with extra root and energy reserves that will support new growth on the remaining branches. Dormant-season pruning is good for you, too, because you can see the branches more clearly without leaves in the way. And it gives you a reason to go outside on mild winter days.

Flowering trees won’t bloom if they are trimmed after flower buds are “set.” The safest rule of thumb is to only trim flowering trees during the 30-day period right after they bloom—which can occur throughout the year depending on location and species.

Here is a very partial list of shrubs and trees you can prune from winter until the long days of spring start sap flowing again. Below is a short list of trees not to prune during winter.

Trees to Prune in Winter

• Bradford and Callory pears
• crabapples
• poplar
• spruce
• junipers
• sumacs
• bald cypress
• cherries
• plums
• honey locust

Don’t Prune During Winter

Some trees “bleed” or ooze sap when pruned in late winter or early spring. While oozing sap is not dangerous to the tree, it can make a sticky, dirty mess, especially on parked cars. Prune these trees in summer or fall:

• maples
• birches
• dogwoods
• walnuts
• elms

The Right Cuts

• Remove dead or dying branches.
• Prune out diseased limbs right away. Be sure to cut well below the diseased areas, and don’t prune when the plants are wet (water can spread disease). If you prefer to be extra cautious, rinse your tools with a solution of 10 percent bleach in water.
• Cut back branches that have grown over where you walk or mow so they don’t break off.
• Where you see two branches crossing, prune off the smaller one.
• Thin branches judiciously to allow sunlight and air into the center of trees and shrubs.

Pruning Dos and Don’ts

• Do cut at an angle that mirrors the branch collar—the furrow of bark where branch and trunk meet. Cut the branch next to the branch collar. If you did it right, a circle of healthy callus will swell around the spot.
• Do cut large branches in three parts. First, cut off about one-third of the branch to reduce the weight. Holding up a heavy branch while you prune it off the trunk will break your back and your saw, and tear the trunk’s bark. Next, undercut the remaining stub so the trunk bark won’t rip when the stub falls free. Last, make the final cut from the top, beside (but not cutting into) the branch collar.
• Don’t leave stubs behind—stubs right, inviting insects and disease to move in and attack healthy tissue.
• Don’t scalp your trees. A tree with a flat-top looks ridiculous, and it will grow weak new sprouts in place of healthy branches. Cut to the tree’s natural shape and let it grow up.

Tree Facts

20 to 25: Percent. When pruning, avoid taking off this amount of a tree’s leaf area in any year. Source: Utah State University Extension Service
5 to 10: Percent of a tree’s crown: Size of big limbs that should be pruned only during winter dormancy, or in mid summer just after flowering. Source: Wikipedia

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