• Darcy Morehouse

Winter Pruning

Ok, hear me out. This may sound weird, and I know we have like 2 feet of snow right now, but the next few weeks will actually be the perfect time to prune some of your favorite trees and shrubs. So what is winter pruning, and is it right for your yard?

Why prune in the winter?

Pruning is an essential part of any perennial plant health. It opens up the interior of the plant allowing for more sunlight to reach it, and improves air circulation. It removes dead growth and stops the plant from sending nutrients to the dead parts. It promotes more flowers, more fruits, more foliage, it just makes for a healthier plant all around. Along with being healthier, pruning gives you the opportunity to shape your plant for aesthetics and ease of access.


During the winter, most trees and shrubs around here are dormant. Winter pruning is especially good for trees and shrubs that flower and/or produce fruit. By pruning before the plants have a chance to germinate in the spring, while they're still dormant, it reduces stress on the plant and gives it some time to recover before it starts trying to grow and produce. It also gives the cuts a chance to dry and heal over before the insects come out in the warmer weather. As well as it being better for some trees and shrubs, it's also easier to prune in the winter. You can see what you're doing when the branches are bare, and dead growth has turned gray making it easier to identify.


What should I prune in the winter?

There are a bajillion trees and shrubs that benefit from winter pruning, and I'm not going to list them all (you're welcome), but here are some of the most common around here.

  • Fruit trees

  • Hydrangea

  • Roses

  • Juniper

  • Some flowering trees, like cherry

  • Smoke trees

  • Gardenia

  • Birch

If in doubt, just ask us!


When is the best time for winter pruning?

The best time for winter pruning is while the plants are still dormant, about a month before they will start to bud. We are right on the edge of zones 4 & 5 (Northville & north is 4b, south of Northville is 5a), so for us the best time for winter pruning is mid-March.

Ok, I'm sold, how do I do it?

Every tree & shrub is a little bit different, but there are a few general rules of thumb that work for most of them. Make sure you have a sharp tool to work with. The tool you use will depend on the size of the branches that you're removing, and you can use snips, shears, loppers, or a small saw. A smaller tool will give you more precision and a cleaner cut, and larger tools will be able to handle larger jobs (duh), but can tend to kind of chew up the wood a bit, which isn't great for it.


If you're cutting a branch off entirely, cut it as close to the main stalk as possible without damaging any other branches. If you're just cutting a branch down, cut at a 45 degree angle just above a bud or nodule that is growing in the direction you want the branch to go in.


STEP 1: Remove dead growth. The first step is to trim back any dead branches and leaves. A great benefit to winter pruning is that by March the dead growth most likely has turned a different color than the rest of the plant, and should be pretty easy to identify. Look for pieces that are graying and brittle, and cut them as close as possible to the live branch.

STEP 2. Remove "suckers." These are any little new growth coming from the bottom of the tree or in between larger, healthier branches.


STEP 3. Trim cross-growth. If it looks like there are branches that are starting to grown into the center of the tree, or about to cross another branch, trim these down.


STEP 4. Stand back, look, and shape. Take a minute to look at the shape of the tree or shrub. How do you want it to grow? Are there any branches that look like they're going to grow unevenly? If there are two branches growing close together, remove the one with fewer buds. Keep stepping back and looking at the overall shape.


Don't worry about going crazy, just do a little bit if you're skittish. The basic idea is to clean it up and declutter it, and a small trim can make a big difference, especially in a young plant. In fact, you should never remove more than 25% of a tree or shrub at a time. If you need a major overhaul, it's best to break it up over a couple of years.

Have questions about a specific plant?

Got questions? Interested in tips for your specific tree or shrub? Send us a message! We'd love to hear from you.


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