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Prune This, Not That: A Guide to the Plants that Can Get Winter Cuts

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Prune This, Not That: A Guide to the Plants that Can Get Winter Cuts

February 7, 2024

February is a weird month—far enough away from the year-end holiday festivities for them to feel like a distant memory and yet, with the dreary days, also far from the exuberance of spring. On some level, this month can have all the excitement of a waiting room. So what can you do while waiting for warmer weather? You can carefully prune.

February is a good time to prune because plants and their pests are dormant. Plus, naked branches allow you to see the structure of the tree or shrub. The reasons to prune are trimming for size and shape; removing damaged and diseased branches; and promoting new growth and blooms.

Need more reasons? Pruning can help with overall plant health by opening up the canopy to let in more light and air, both within the tree and for the plants below. You can also prune to reclaim overgrown areas of your garden. Your arborist or tree service can help with this for larger trees. Safety first, especially when using chainsaws.

What to Prune in February

Late winter is.a great time to prune crabapple trees. Photograph by Joseph Valentine, from Garden Visit: At Home at Juniper Hill Farm in New Hampshire.
Above: Late winter is.a great time to prune crabapple trees. Photograph by Joseph Valentine, from Garden Visit: At Home at Juniper Hill Farm in New Hampshire.
  • Trees including ashes, walnuts, beeches, and lindens. When in doubt, ask your arborist. Don’t prune if the temperature will dip below 25°F, as it can damage the tree.
  • Certain fruit trees, like apples, peaches, and pears, also can be pruned, but require more specific knowledge. There are generally accepted principles for pruning fruit trees, and they focus on strength to bear the weight of the fruit, producing a good harvest, keeping pests away, and ease of harvesting.
  • Ornamental flowering trees, such as cherries and plums, need to be checked for black knot. February is the perfect time to prune it out, making sure to cut the affected limbs at least four to six inches from the growth and sterilizing the pruning shears in between cuts. Diseased plant matter should be thrown in the trash and not composted.
Photograph via Niwaki, from DIY: Pruning Pine Trees in Winter.
Above: Photograph via Niwaki, from DIY: Pruning Pine Trees in Winter.
  • Evergreens generally don’t need pruning, but you may want to do so for space and shape. Just don’t cut into the dead zone, the brown area near the center of the tree where the branches have no greener. Why? If you do, you’ll end up with a hole, as there won’t be any new growth from this area. If you have an arborvitae, yew, juniper, cypress, spruce, or hemlock that needs a trim, now’s the time to do it.
  • Some flowering shrubs and bushes that can be pruned in mid-winter are butterfly bush, clethra, rose of Sharon, rose, panicle hydrangea, and beautyberry, but make sure you do it before new growth appears. Some of them, like roses and butterfly bushes, can be pruned back hard. For the rest, check with your cooperative extension office.

What Not to Prune in February

  • Maple trees should not be pruned due to the sap running. Maple syrup season starts at the end of February and runs through April. Check with your arborist for the best time to prune.
  • Shrubs and bushes that flower in the spring before the end of June should not be pruned unless you are okay with losing the flowers, since the buds are located on old wood. Pruning in mid-winter can remove the dormant buds and there will be no spring flowers. Examples are lilacs, magnolias, azalea, dogwoods, quinces, mock orange, and weigela. You can prune these two weeks after they bloom if needed. (Like with most of life, there are exceptions to every rule. Certain cultivars of hydrangeas, lilacs, and azaleas, to name a few, form blooms on both old and new wood and will still bloom if pruned.)

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