Winter is the time to work on pruning your trees and shrubs. Once the sap starts to rise in spring and the buds on your woody plants start to swell, you could cause “bleeding” by cutting your shrubs and trees. Get it done now. Black walnut, Birch and Maple trees should ideally be pruned in fall, but most woody plants respond best to winter pruning. I like to prune when there’s snow on the ground; I can see the branches better and spot where the problems are.
Pruning is done in three steps: First, remove all dead or diseased wood. You can tell this even in winter because healthy branches have a vitality that’s easy to spot, and dead or diseased limbs really stand out. Next, take out limbs that are rubbing or interfering with each other. Cut off the lower limbs of shade trees if they interfere with walking underneath. Next you need to cut off water sprouts or suckers (the long straight shoots that stick up or grow from the lower trunk). These should be cut cleanly right at the base or they’ll sprout two or three more.
Now step back and look at the plant. Is it balanced and well-proportioned? If not this is the time to make some corrections. Most important is to keep shade trees from “forking”, developing narrow crotches with two or more main trunks. One of the trunks should be selected and the others eliminated before they get too big to fix, otherwise the tree could split down the middle in the future. On fruit trees, branches that are crowding toward the center of the plant should be thinned out, so that sunlight can reach the fruit.
To encourage a compact, dense crown it helps to “tip back” the outer branches on young trees so that they’ll fork. Wherever you cut off a limb, a fork will develop as several new sprouts form. This fills out the plant and keeps it from getting “leggy”. You just have to avoid leaving a stub, so cut just above a branch or bud.
Dogwoods, maples, and fruit trees (including ornamental crabapples and cherries) tend to develop lots of extra limbs along the trunk and benefit from being thinned. Opening up the center helps sunlight reach inside the crown so you’ll get more bloom and fruit, and less dead branches inside where the sun can’t reach.
If you’re not sure of yourself, look at a book on basic pruning for information about the specific tree you have. Most importantly, use quality pruning tools and make clean cuts. Cut just above new limbs or buds, to encourage forking. Never leave a stub longer than a half-inch, because the bark can’t heal over your cut and this invites tree problems.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.