The Practice of Pruning in the Winter

Friday, January 20, 2017 // The holidays are over. You’ve taken down your outdoor lights, put away the evergreen wreath on your front door, and vacuumed the last of the pine needles from your carpet. Time to settle down for a long winter’s nap and dream about the spring. That’s when your snow-filled yard turns into a colorful, lush landscape, right?  Not so fast- there is still important work to be done to bring this vision to reality. Winter is the perfect time to brave the colder temperatures and get out there and prune your trees, bushes, and flowering plants.

Pruning is defined as cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems. When done correctly, it will encourage healthy growth; which means thicker foliage and more abundant flowers. It helps your plants defend against insects and disease. Plus, it makes your trees and plantings look more attractive. The big question here is which plants need pruning, and when should it be done?

Winter is often the best time to prune, as most plants are dormant, with lots of growth from the previous season. Branches are also bare, so you can clearly see the architecture of your tree or plant. Get your plan in place now, because you want to start pruning when the weather consistently reaches about 40 degrees, so that means late February or early March here in West Michigan. Here are some tips to get you headed in the right direction:

What to Prune

Pruning in winter is an important part of landscaping because it can help invigorate dormant trees and shrubs. Pruning leaves plants with extra energy and resource reserves that would have been used for the pruned branches, resources that the plant can turn towards strengthening remaining branches and its core root system. Here’s a quick list of plants you can prune during the winter.


  • Barberries
  • European hornbeam
  • Euonymous
  • Hydrangeas
  • Roses
  • Viburnums
  • Weigelias 


  • Bradford and Callory pears
  • Crabapples
  • Poplar
  • Spruce
  • Junipers
  • Sumacs
  • Bald cypress
  • Cherries
  • Plums
  • Japanese Maples
  • Amelanchiers
  • Redbuds
  • Oaks

Certain trees (deciduous and evergreens) will ooze or “bleed” sticky sap if pruned during the winter or early spring. Although this is not dangerous for the tree, it can result in a sticky mess on your lawn or nearby cars. It’s generally better to avoid pruning these during the winter, and to do them earlier during the fall. This includes:

  • Maples
  • Birches
  • Dogwoods
  • Walnuts
  • Elms

Use the Right Tools and Technique

Use the right tools for the job. Have pocket knives, hedge shears, by- pass pruners, loppers, pole pruners and saws. Make sure your tools are sharp to make the work more efficient.

Follow the four D’s. You can safely prune anything on a plant that is dead, diseased, dying or damaged. Branches that fall into these categories cause more stress to the plant when left attached. Trimming them allows the plant to spend energy on healing.

Follow the lines of the branches, taking notice of the natural flow and structure of the plant as it grows from the base or the trunk and follow that line out towards the end.

Understand the two types of pruning cuts:

A heading cut involves cutting off part of a branch to create a stronger branch and a larger number of smaller offshoots on that branch. A heading cut is done to stimulate new growth.

A thinning cut removes a branch at its point of origin, which can be at the main trunk, a side branch, or even right to the ground. A thinning cut will prevent new growth.

Make clean cuts where branches join stems.

To encourage future growth, cut branches at 45-degree angles in the direction you want future limbs to grow.

Step back and make sure your work looks balanced as you go. Aim for a natural shape.

Well-maintained trees, plants and shrubs look better and are healthier. They produce more and higher quality flowers, fruits, and foliage. Although it may seem scary to cut back your plants, the payoff will be abundant buds and blooms the following season. Get your plan together now and you’ll be ready to go when the weather breaks!

Tags: Landscaping Tips