Ask the Clark Gardener

Pruning in Winter

Roellyn Armstrong, MG

Looking for things to do in the winter garden on a nice afternoon, you have decided to do a little pruning of your evergreens. But what else might benefit from a little selective pruning this time of year? Actually, most trees and shrubs that actually need to be pruned are best pruned now that they are dormant and not putting forth new growth. The key word here is need. Every growing thing does not need to be pruned. And if you think you need a chain saw, a protective helmet and a ladder, think again about hiring a professional better equipped and skilled to do this job. But for the average deciduous (loses leaves in winter) or evergreen tree or shrub, an ordinary pair of pruning shears and a pair of loppers should do the job. So, with spring coming soon, the window to do this chore is rapidly closing.

Before you decide to prune, ask yourself why you are going to prune the plant. Are there diseased branches? Do you need to direct the new growth? Is the plant getting too unruly or large? Is the plant needing renewal in growth or flower production? If you cannot answer the why to your pruning, perhaps you should reconsider. And if you do not know the growth and flowering habits of the plant, then you probably canít prune it successfully. And do you have the necessary tools in good condition to do the job? Generally, a sharpened set of bypass pruning shears is sufficient for most small jobs. (Do not use the anvil type of shears as the blade crushes the plant rather than cuts it.) Lopping shears will be needed if the diameter of the stem is greater than ĹĒ, and a pruning saw will cut branches greater than 1 1/2” in diameter.

So, now you are ready with your sharpened tools, protective eyeglasses and a vision of what you want to accomplish. You know your plant; you know its final mature form and its growth and flowering pattern. And you have a purpose for this pruning. Start by removing only the small twiglets in the center so that you can better see the shape and direction of the larger branches. Consider removing old wood and diseased branches next and those that grow from one side and cross over in the center, exiting on the other side. Thin by cutting back to a bud, branch or main trunk, or head cut by removing the terminal portion of the stem midway.

Some doníts to remember:

  • Do not prune just for the sake of pruning.
  • Do not coat wound on tree or shrub.
  • Do not remove more than one-third of any tree or shrub. If the plant needs more pruning to alter the shape or reinvigorate it, consider doing this over three years.
  • Do not prune your Hydrangea macrophylla (the blue, pink or purple snowball or floristís hydrangeas) as these bloom on old wood and have already formed next seasonís flower buds. If you cut these bud branches, you are sacrificing next yearís flowers. The same is true for lilacs. Both of these shrubs should be pruned just after the flowers have finished. Other hydrangeas (lacecaps, oakleaf, Limelight, PeeGees, etc.) can be pruned now or in early spring before they start to grow. Roses can be pruned now or before they break dormancy in late winter. Prune back to five leaves pointing outward to encourage the new growth to grow away from the center of the plant. So, go ahead and take a few judicious cuts off your evergreen shrubs.

Looking for Spring in All the Wrong Places

Roellyn Armstrong, MG

Every year we humans perform the same ritualistic search for signs of spring. Tired of our winter boots, knitted hats and cold hands, we desperately start searching for those signs. And every year, we look in all the wrong places. We look to human-created signs of the spring that comes every year, without our intervention.

Now that most of my neighbors have removed their desiccated brown wreaths from their front doors and their holiday lights (at last!) or simply put their Valentine decorations over them, I feel guilty keeping my candles lit in my windows, but I do so to remind myself that the winter is not yet over. It is still acceptable to light the fireplace, wear fur-trimmed clothing and waterproof footwear.

And every year, we foolishly perpetuate the myth that a small furry woodchuck can predict the arrival of spring, when we really know that it takes the same amount of time every year. Rather, letís look for signs of spring in natureóthe swelling of the velvety buds of pussy willow, the tentative appearance of green tips that herald the growth of narcissi, crocus and tulips, the yellowing tips of forsythia branches, the lightening of the sky earlier in the morning and the later arrival of dusk.

And even though, as I write this article, I am listening to the icy pellets hit my window on this snowy day commemorating Abraham Lincolnís birth, I, for one, am enjoying the winter that is still here with us because, for people like me, it hasnít even been winter yet! Other than the surprise snowstorm of early November, (technically still fall), we have not had enough snow for me to want spring to arrive. I like the distinctness of every season, and winter is one made special by snow. So, I will wait for spring to arrive when it is ready! But I will expect to find daffodils in stores very soon to tempt me into my own anticipation of the spring that is to come. And I will not be seduced into looking for spring in all the wrong places!


Remember, if you have a comment or question, send them to me at And come for a visit!

Back to top

Support the Garden