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The Joy of Gardening

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Should I be pruning in winter?


I have time now, during the winter. Can any of the pruning of trees and shrubs be done in the winter? Are there any that should not be pruned now? And what is your opinion of "topping" a tree?

Answer

Winter is an ideal time to prune almost all deciduous trees and shrubs for a variety of reasons: dormancy means trees and shrubs will not bleed; reduced tree stress equals reduced disease susceptibility; pests are inactive; and last but not least, with the foliage gone the tree structure is so much more easily recognizable. There are even specific trees that should only be pruned in winter, oak trees are an example; if pruned when actively growing they will ooze sap and thereby attract the oak bark beetle which in turn can spread the oak wilt fungus, a disease that is a serious threat to oaks.  In winter these beetles are hibernating.  Pruning honey locusts when dormant will reduce the likelihood of stem cankers and pruning apples or crabapples when dormant will reduce the risk of fireblight. The exception to the rule of dormant pruning are spring-flowering trees and shrubs.   All spring-flowering deciduous tree and shrub species like lilacs, dogwoods, cherries and redbuds will already have formed their buds and pruning would drastically reduce blooms, instead these should always be pruned following their blooming period.  Be aware that certain trees (maples and birch) can bleed excessively if pruned in late winter or early spring and to avoid this simply wait until the trees have fully leafed out.  Although the bleeding rarely harms the trees it can be quite unsightly.

Regarding tree topping I strongly advise against it as there are many associated ill effects: starvation of the tree by drastically reducing foliage; susceptibility to pests and diseases; wounds not healing efficiently; tree shock from drastic change; weak limbs from new growth; ugliness factor by indiscriminate pruning and new shoot growth; and finally an increased growth rate, thereby counteracting the reason for the initial pruning!



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