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Seasonal Pruning Guide

by Rod Smith, Oregon Certified Nursery Professional
Rod's Garden Pruning

© 1998-2017 Rodney A. Smith
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Winter is the traditional time to prune, but it might not be the best time to prune a particular tree or shrub. If plants are already too big, winter pruning only makes them grow bigger faster. Removing suckers and water sprouts in the winter usually produces two or three times as many the following summer. Also, winter pruning will remove the flowers from spring blooming plants. Trees and shrubs can be pruned at different times of the year to get certain results, because plants respond differently to pruning at different times of year.

The best time to prune a tree or shrub depends on how fast it is growing and when it flowers. How much to prune depends on how fast the tree is growing and how crowded the branches are. This can only be learned by experience. Start by noticing which branches have the most flowers and which branches produce the best fruit. Then prune to encourage the types of branches that are most productive.

Pruning deciduous trees and shrubs in the winter when they are dormant (no leaves), will make them grow more vigorously in the spring. Dormant pruning reduces the number of buds to share the food stored in the roots, so each bud will grow more vigorously. Pruning deciduous trees and shrubs in the summer will make them grow slower the following spring. Summer pruning reduces the number of leaves to produce food stored in the roots. There is less food for each bud so the buds grow less vigorously the following spring.

Winter pruning is recommended for young deciduous trees and shrubs, and fruit trees to encourage them to grow more vigorously. Summer pruning is recommended for full sized or overgrown deciduous trees and shrubs to slow down their growth. Plants that haven't been pruned in recent years should be partly pruned in the summer and the rest in the winter to avoid overpruning. Pruning off too much in the summer will stunt the growth, and pruning off too much in the winter will cause lots of suckers and watersprouts.

Late spring pruning doesn't speed up or slow down growth so it is a good time to prune neglected plants. It is also good time to prune fruit trees since by then, it is obvious which branches produce fruit and which ones do not. This is also a good time to remove suckers and watersprouts, the branches that grow straight up. They can be plucked off when they are still soft. They are less likely to resprout if they are plucked off, because cutting them leaves a stub with buds.

Pruning evergreen trees and shrubs in the winter or summer doesn't affect their rate of growth very much because they store food in the leaves or needles, so stored food and buds are reduced about equally. Twigs and branches can be removed any time of year with the same results. However, shearing the tips is best done just before or after their spring flush of new growth, so the new growth can hide the cuts. Shearing evergreens in late summer or fall isn't a good idea because it produces brown cut ends that will show until the new growth next spring hides them.

Pines have special requirements for pruning because the buds are all formed at the tips of the new growth. Cutting off the tip of a branch will prevent the branch from putting out new growth. However, new buds will form if the tip is cut off during the soft candle stage, when the tips of the needles are just emerging from the candles. Pines can only be sheared at this stage which usually occurs in May or June. Branches can be pruned back to a side branch any time of year, but pine pitch borers are often attracted by pruning in the summer, especially if stubs are left. Winter pruning of pine branches is the least likely to attract pine pitch borers.

Besides growth, the time of flowering affects the season for pruning. Spring flowers come from buds that formed the preceding summer. Late summer and dormant pruning will remove flower buds. Pruning spring-blooming plants soon after they finish blooming won't reduce the number of flowers the next year. Summer flowers come from buds formed on new growth. Dormant pruning will encourage larger flowers. Pruning off faded flowers will usually encourage more flowers.

Seasonal Guide for Pruning Common Trees and Shrubs

(These dates are the average for the USA, but will need to be adjusted for warmer or colder climates.)

January to March: young or weak growing trees and shrubs, summer blooming shrubs such as roses, rose of sharon, crapemyrtle, and spiraeas.

April to May: spring flowering trees and shrubs such as azaleas, camellias, daphne, forsythia, lilacs, rhododendrons, cherries, plums, deciduous magnolias, and crabapples, after they are finished blooming. Also, needle-leaf and broad-leaf evergreens can be pruned or sheared.

June to early August: overgrown or neglected deciduous flowering or fruit trees and shrubs, suckers and watersprouts, and faded flowers on summer blooming plants such as roses and spiraea. Also, needle-leaf and broad-leaf evergreens can be pruned or sheared.

Late August to October: only necessary pruning to prevent limb breakage during winter weather.

November to December: perennials and shrubs that die back over winter such as hydrangeas, and Confederate Rose hibiscus.

Dead or diseased wood should be pruned out immediately in any season. Clean and sterilize pruning tools with bleach or disinfectant between every cut to prevent spreading the disease.

Prune in this order

1. Remove all dead or diseased wood.
2. Remove or cut back limbs that come out of the trunk at a narrow angle. These develop weak crotches which will break under a heavy load. The smaller ones can be bent outward and propped with a stick so they develop a wide crotch.
3. Remove a limb that comes out of the trunk a few inches directly above or below another branch.
(Note. 2 and 3 don't all have to be done right way if they aren't crowding other branches.)
4. Thin out watersprouts. If you remove all of them in the winter, you will get twice as many back. On the top of the tree where the limbs are exposed to the sun, leave a watersprout every two feet and cut off one fourth of its height.
5. Remove dangling branches or cut them back to an outward growing branch.
6. Remove branches that are crossing or crowded.

Steps 5 and 6 may not be needed if the branches are not crowded.

To receive a free estimate on pruning in the West Portland and Washington County areas, EMAIL Rod.
Please include your location.


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