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The essential Guide to Winter Pruning for Trees

Written by Nicola Wallis

Why do trees and plants need to be pruned?

There are three main reasons why trees should be pruned in winter:

1) To Stimulate Tree Growth

One of the main reasons for pruning trees and plants is to stimulate growth as trees produce more abundantly and grow vigorously after a winter trim. Removing dead, damaged or diseased branches encourages tree health and growth as 
energy will no longer be wasted on these branches but instead go to the healthy ones. Pruning before any new growth starts in spring enables the plant to put its energy towards producing new, healthy growth when the warmer temperatures arrive. It encourages branching low down, where appropriate, and the formation of a strong growth framework.

2) To maintain the Tree's Shape & Size

Trees can easily outgrow a garden and cause damage to buildings if you don not prune them your trees to keep them small.  Trees and plants are also pruned to remove over-long or misshaped branches and to maintain a single leader. Managing the tree in this way restores their size and shape and enhances their appearance.  It can also help the tree maintain a specific function in your garden for example as part of a hedge.

3) To Prevent Overcrowding

Pruning prevents overcrowding and allows light and air to reach the centre of the plant which in turn improves the quantity and quality of flowers, fruits and foliage produced.

Why should you prune trees in winter?

During winter most plants and trees are dormant, so it is a less stressful time for trees to be pruned. In addition, pruning during this season can also help manage insects, fungi and diseases as they are not active during this period either.

Pruning when active in spring for example means that spores are attracted by fresh cuts which encourages them to spread and infest the tree.

Pruning during winter is an easier task as without foliage in the way it is easier to see the shape and structure of the tree as well as any diseased or damaged branches.

Winter is a great time to prune the following plants and trees as it encourages crops, fruit production and flowering.

  • Roses
  • fruit trees and fruit bushes
  • clematis
  • grapevines
  • wisteria
  • deciduous ornamental trees and shrubs

When not to prune Trees

Not all trees and plants need to be pruned in winter  including trees that flower in the spring, such as lilac or ornamental flowering trees for instance dogwood, redbud, cherry, pear, and magnolia.  This is because the bloom buds are already developing, and trimming will cause a loss or reduction of bloom.  Instead prune these trees in spring immediately after blooms fade to reduce bloom loss for the following year.

Avoid pruning after heavy rainfall as standing around a tree or plant can compact the soil preventing moisture from accessing the roots. Unless the trees is mature avoid pruning when there is a frost.  

What tools are needed for winter pruning?

This really depends upon the type, age and size of the tree being trimmed. Ensure your secateurs loppers, long reach pruners are both clean and sharp. Clean tools will prevent the potential spread of any disease between plants and sharp tools will mean a clean cut. Blunt and messy cuts take longer to heal which could cause infection.

Basic pruning jobs require a pair of secateurs and a long handled-lopper. Some pruning jobs may also require;

  1. Double-action lopper
  2. Pruning knives
  3. Grecian saw
  4. Shears
  5. Saws and chain saw 

How do you prune trees?

Pruning fruit trees is quite different to that of ornamental trees as the ultimate aim is for effective fruiting and to prevent the spread of pests and diseases.

  1. Remove any diseased, dying or dead wood.
  2. With apple and fruiting trees remove any branches that cross or (could potentially cross each other in the future) as they can possibly rub together causing an entry point for disease and fungi. This will also avoid overcrowding, allowing light and air to reach the centre of the tree.
  3. Cut laterals (side growth) so that any energy goes to the leader (main branch). Remove lower branches on all evergreen plants.
  4. Make clean cuts and take your time. Step back regularly to ensure you are checking the overall shape it should be symmetrical without any excessively long branches. As a rule of thumb your aim is to keep the branches that develop or maintain the structure of the tree.

Top tips and what to avoid when pruning in winter

  1. Prune branches at a downward angle so that rain will run off towards the ground. Flat cuts allow water to pool on the wound and create the perfect conditions for fungi to infect.
  2. Be certain to prune above a node, this is where the leaves, buds and shoots emerge from the stem. This not only prevents die-back and disease, but it also allows you to encourage new stems to form in a chosen direction. Avoid cutting more than 1 cm above a node as this will leave an unattractive stump which won’t grow. By the same token try not to cut too close to the node as this can cause damage to the branch.
  3. Be sure to prune out any canker and signs of infection. By taking early action you can extend the life and health of the tree.
  4. Avoid over pruning as this can cause die back of the roots and it may take several years for the tree to recover. In addition, if you prune out the leader (known as ‘topping’), the plant can go into shock and put on lots of leafy growth at the expense of flowers and fruit. 

How to prune an apple tree

As with pruning in general, start by removing any branches that are rubbing or crossing as well as any dead or diseased branches.

As a rule of thumb an apple tree grows best if there is room for a bird to fly straight through the centre. That said, pruning should not be extensive as hard winter pruning stimulates growth so energy would be put into growing rather than fruiting.

When pruning an apple tree, the aim is to increase a framework of spurs which grow along regular intervals along each branch as these will yield the forthcoming fruit. Be careful to establish if the apple tree is a tip-bearing or spur-bearing variety Tip-bearing varieties produce the majority of their fruit from the terminal fruit buds of shoots made the previous summer and if these are cut off you will have no fruit production the following summer.  If you're not surethen, less is more, just prune to remove damaged and crossing branches. 

Take a look at this blog to find out more about Growing an Apple from Seed or if you want to try a different tree then why not try growing your own Hazelnuts or Cherries?

Grow your Own Hazelnuts

How to Grow a Cherry Tree 




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