Question: What Do I Prune When?
Ask a Gardener
What should I plan on pruning in the fall and winter garden season? I never seem to remember when to prune what! Thank you!
Great question. Even many experienced gardeners get a bit confused over what to prune when. Lord forbid those plants tags disappear and you’re left scratching your head about whether you should or shouldn’t prune!
For the most part, you actually don’t need to do much pruning in the fall. You definitely don’t want to prune before plants have gone dormant, since pruning prior to that will only promote plant growth, and then that new growth will freeze with colder weather.
If you must prune, here’s some Dos and Don’ts to keep in mind for fall and winter pruning.
- Prune summer bloomers in late winter when they’re dormant. Some even may pruning to the ground. Don’t just hack away at will. Do your research on the particular plant before picking up the tools!
- Shrubs grown primarily for their foliage, such as burning bush and barberry, should be pruned while dormant in winter.
- Prune shade trees such as oak, linden and ash while dormant in winter. It’s easiest to see the branch structure while bare of leaves. Focus on removing crossed branches, or areas that are diseased. It’s also good to make sure branches aren’t rubbing up against the house or roof lines.
- Fruit trees should be pruned in midwinter to open up the tree for more light. It also keeps exposure to bacterial diseases at a bay.
- Bush berries can have the oldest stems cut off to ground level, which will help maintain a constant supply of productive wood. Do this after the plant goes dormant.
- Go easy. Meaning, prune slowly and methodically. Read up on how to prune the specific plant, do a little pruning, and then take a step back and look at the results. It’s better to err on the side of too little, than too much. Once it’s pruned off…..too late!
- Go ahead and prune deadwood on perennials. Keep in mind that many shrubs go brown in fall/winter, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dead. Deadwood usually feels and looks different. You can prune it off now. Otherwise, many perennials can be left until spring. The dead summer growth provides food and shelter to wildlife such as birds, as well as providing some protection from freezing to the plant over winter.
- For climbing roses, you can prune to prevent breakage, whipping and scarring by longer canes. As a general rule, prune out all canes thinner than a pencil in diameter. Also remove any errant crossing branches at this time.
- Fall is a good time to prune your hostas back of dead leaves. Use pruning shears to carefully cut the dead leaves back to the base of the plant, don’t pull leaves out using your hands.
- Use clean tools. If you’ve cut diseased branches on one plant, make sure you clean the tools thoroughly before moving on to the next one to stop the spread of disease.
- Don’t prune spring bloomers such as lilac, rhododendron, azalea, forsythia, since they bloom on old wood from the previous year. Best time to prune these is right after the spring blooms have finished.
- Don’t prune your lavender in the fall! It’s tempting, because they can look a bit scraggly, but the worst time to prune them is the fall or winter because it’s likely to damage or kill them when cold temperatures arrive.
- Don’t top your trees. It shortens the lifespan and creates hazardous trees in high traffic areas.
- Don’t prune when it’s wet or damp outside. This spreads diseases. Pruning when it’s sunny since that will help kill mold and bacteria.
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