Winter pruning is when days are pleasant and I am in the mood

Published 10:56 am Friday, January 10, 2020

It wasn’t so many years ago I was passing along one of the favorite recommendations of folks in the plant advice business: when pruning limbs larger than a quarter in diameter, paint the fresh cut with pruning paint.

We repeated that one because somebody somewhere used logic to conclude the black goo would ward off bugs and rot. Over time limbs and pruning tools didn’t change but the logic did.

Turns out the key to a fast healing pruning cut is a proper cut at the proper location. Air and sunlight take care of bugs and rot as plant tissue rushes to heal over the wound. The paint served no purpose other than making us gardeners feel like we had gone all out to do it right.

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It was psychological, not horticultural.

The correct time for winter pruning perennial plants has sort of changed, too. It used to be accepted that George Washington’s official birthday was perfect for pruning roses and other shrubs. That was back when Washington’s Birthday was on Feb. 22, which was not his real birthday. His birth was revised first when the British changed the entire calendar while he was a young man.

Then a couple of centuries later Congress changed the holiday observance to the third Monday in February every year to make for a three-day weekend for themselves and government employees.

Holidays aside, the winter dormant season is the right time to prune many perennials. And over the years, I’ve formed an opinion that most anytime in winter is okay to prune these plants. I know the “logic” is if we prune too early and a hard freeze comes, the pruned spot on branches could be freeze-damaged.

I’ve personally never known of a pruned perennial severely affected by freezing weather. Our freezes are just not as severe or long-lasting as those of colder climates.

If a fresh cut actually were cold-damaged here, when spring green-up comes, new growth would sprout out somewhere below the killed cut and take off. Therefore, my own timing for winter pruning is when days are pleasant and I am in the mood.

More important than which day or weekend in January, February or early March we prune perennial trees and shrubs is knowing which ones to winter prune and how to prune.

The early spring bloomers already have their bloom buds waiting for day length and warmer weather to trigger bloom opening. These buds were formed last summer. Cutting back limbs bearing bloom buds on the ready will reduce blooming. Cut back far enough and there will be no spring blooms.

Such a mistake will not kill plants or affect their longevity but will cost one year’s spring bloom. Azalea and forsythia are among such early bloomers. Most fruit trees and muscadine vines are also early bloomers.

Proper winter pruning leaves the right amount of blooms for a good fruit set while removing excess blooms to prevent overcrowded, undersized fruit and to control the size and shape of the plants for the future.


Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.