One always wishes that winter would offer a respite from the constant weeding and tending gardens, but although it doesn’t feel like it outside, spring is right around the corner. Now is the time to bundle up, bring those gardening gloves in the house and get ready to go outside and prune your trees.
Although this is usually the crummiest time of year to be outside, it is the best time to prune trees because it is the worst time for tree pests and diseases to be flying through the air as well. As pruning seems to stimulate growth, best to do this before (not after) the growing season. Were you to prune in late fall, you would likely see a lot of tip die-back.
I usually pick the crummiest day of the year to prune my trees, this year was no exception. Last Saturday, with wind blowing one million miles per hour and heavy snow coming down, saw me outside pruning my trees and dogwood bushes. Some folks wait until the Ides of March to prune trees, but I might do it as early as mid February, depending on my schedule.
First the basics:
I use two things for my trees- the pruner and saw pictured above, cleaned well with rubbing alcohol between plants to avoid spreading contagion. My trees are immature so I am able to reach most branches that need to be pruned. Next year I will either get a pole saw or pole pruner (probably the saw) to reach higher branches.
Obvious safety precautions– don’t take on a branch that is too high up in the tree or too large. Don’t climb on ladders, leave that to the professionals. Wear eye protection so you don’t get poked in the eye and gloves to minimize the chance of cutting yourself.
The key strategy for pruning is to take your time. You can always prune again later if you missed something, but you can’t unprune.
Here is a crabapple on my property that has doubled in size the last four years. It is a really great tree with bright magenta flowers in the spring. Like most nice trees, it has problems- the main one being the exceptional amount of branch growth it puts on every year. Unlike my usual plan, I am trying to allow this tree to have low branches to provide some privacy for my courtyard. I look first for crossing branches and branches that aim in the wrong direction.
I cut the branch right above the collar with my pruners or saw, depending on the branch size. Hold the blade parallel to the remaining branch. Once I removed all the crossing branches (and the booze fruit left on the tree from last spring), I looked at the shape of the tree and used some touch up pruning to make sure branches had plenty of room and were headed in the right directions (i.e. away from the trunk)– with a normal tree you would also look to make sure branches were high enough off the ground so that you could walk under the tree– unless you are going for a more low-to-the-ground look, as I am here.
Here is the finished tree.
Note that I didn’t remove too many branches– mainly because crabapples flower on last year’s wood, so you reduce the amount of flowers you get when you prune, but your tree is healthier and will look better in the long run. I also use the cut branches in flower arrangements, I bring them inside and put them in a dark bathroom in a vase of water and they will bloom a month before we have crabapple blooms outside.
Next up: Dogwood.
This dogwood has some of the best colored branches in the world, but I have clearly planted it in the wrong spot- it takes up vastly too much room. In an attempt to keep it in bounds I have been trying a rejuvenation pruning every year- removing only the old fat branches (which aren’t as bright yellow) and leaving the newer, more slender branches.
This is a bit trickier to prune in the snow, and I wouldn’t normally do so at this time of year, but I have had a problem with dogwood anthracnose, which has killed two of my four dogwoods, so I hope a winter pruning will help keep the disease at bay.
For this bush I removed only the thickest canes, at the bottom of the bush, above the lowest bud, as shown.
Although I am holding the pruners in my left hand (my pockets were full) I am using the saw to cut above the bottom bud on the bush. Look for a bump along the stem and prune above the bump– I do a horizontal cut, as with the crabapple. Here is the finished bush.
The cut branches (and there were a lot of them) are very attractive. I brought a large arrangement of them in the house, and will put the rest in buckets of water (which will freeze and hold the branches in place) out in front of my house in containers, hopefully this weekend it won’t snow so I’ll have a bit easier time arranging my front containers.
Break out the long johns- it’s time to prune!