Winter Is the Time for Pruning

Adapted from an article by Paul Nuhn, Certified Extension Master Gardener

Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad demonstrates pruning a Prunus laurocerasus 'Otto Luykens' (common cherry laurel) hedge during a pruning practicum at the Fairlington Community Center. Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad demonstrates pruning a Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luykens’ (common cherry laurel) hedge during a pruning practicum at the Fairlington Community Center.
Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

During the winter months, while the garden is dormant, you have a chance to find and correct landscape issues concerning many varieties of deciduous trees. With the leaf canopy off you can easily spot broken, twisted, or crossed branches, as well as dead wood and hanging branches.

Removing such problem branches should be done during the late winter before sap starts to rise in spring. Maple trees, as shown in the “Deciduous Tree Pruning Calendar” from Virginia Cooperative Extension, are an exception – they are best pruned in May, June and July, or in the November–December period. Keep in mind that plants that bloom before May, such as dogwood trees and shrubs such as azaleas and forsythias, also should be pruned after they bloom – otherwise you are apt to cut off the buds and severely limit flowering. Summer-flowering plants should be pruned before spring growth starts. Evergreens such as hollies, boxwoods, cedars, and juniper are also best pruned in the dormant season, roughly November through February. (Read more at: Winter Pruning )


Illustration of tree needing various kinds of pruningThe first step in pruning is identifying what needs improvement. Carefully remove any loose branches, and carefully cut/saw any hanging or broken branches or limbs (Figure#1). Use sharp hand pruners, loppers, or a pruning saw to remove these branches. Your choice of tool will depend upon the diameter and hardness of the wood.

Limbs requiring you to mount a ladder or too big for you to remove safely should be left to a tree care company. Contact a certified arborist if you are not sure of any aspect of this article.

Now look carefully at the remaining tree form and structure. Are any branches too low, hanging over a driveway or walkway? Is the tree too close to the house? If so you may want to consider removing the whole tree or do extensive shaping.

Are branches crossing and or rubbing each other or does the tree look too heavy with too many limbs on one side and not enough on the other? Does the tree look balanced with equal spread all around? Improving the shape and appearance of your trees will enhance your property and promote a healthier tree.

When removing a branch or limb, the following three step process will help keep you safe and your tree healthy.

  1. Make a cut from the underside of the branch a few inches to a foot away from the trunk and about 1/4 the way through (Figure #2, A).

    This is the first cut, from the bottom, about a quarter to a third deep, in the three-cut technique of branch removal.
    Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

  2. Your second cut will be from the top of the branch and further away to remove the bulk and weight of the branch. If this limb is large you should have a professional arborist do this (Figure #2, B).
    The second cut, further out along the branch, is made from the top, and goes all the way through.

    The second cut, further out along the branch, is made from the top, and goes all the way through.
    Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

    Using this technique keeps any bark tear removed from damaging the trunk or adjacent branch. Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

    Using this technique keeps any bark tear removed from damaging the trunk or adjacent branch.
    Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

  3. The final cut trims what remains of the branch. It will be just to the outside of the tree ‘collar’. This collar is located at the junction of every branch as it connects to the next larger limb or the trunk. This third cut is the surgical cut and is the most important in keeping your tree healthy (Figure #2, C).
    example of where to make the three cuts essential for pruning without damaging the tree
The third and final cut is the collar cut -- slanting cleanly down close to the trunk but outside the branch collar. Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

The third and final cut is the collar cut — slanting cleanly down close to the trunk but outside the branch collar.
Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

When done properly, the collar cut will heal and seal after a few years. This seal will protect the tree from insects and diseases. Note that if you cut too close to the collar area, you will make it difficult for the tree to heal properly.

Closeup of the clean final cut, which will soon begin to heal and be closed over with new growth. Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

Closeup of the clean final cut, which will soon begin to heal and be closed over with new growth.
Photo © 2019 Christa Watters

In Figure #3 you can see the profile of a typically healthy tree.

Profile of healthy tree


For more detailed information on pruning, see the following VCE publications:

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