Chop, chop, gardeners. Now is the time to start pruning

Erin Schanen

Chop, chop, gardeners, it’s time to get into gear.

And in this case, I’m referring to literal chops, because it’s time to do some tree pruning.

It’s best to prune most deciduous trees when they are not actively growing, and late winter is an excellent time because in addition to trees being dormant, there is little to no reason to worry about insects compromising vulnerable fresh cuts.

Dormant pruning is particularly good in cases where severe pruning is required, but it’s an excellent time to prune for shape or form as well. This doesn’t apply to evergreens, which do not go dormant.

I’ve got my pruners sharpened and am ready to tackle my hornbeam hedge in training, which I’ve been adding trees to for about five years and last year planted the final six. Because I want this to become a solid hedge, my focus has been on creating bushy growth and limiting its height. By cutting out the previous year’s vigorous top growth, I’m encouraging more, thicker growth lower in the tree.

I also nip off the ends of side branches to encourage more branching, which should lead to that full look. Hornbeams — the hedge is made from the European variety Carpinus betulus — tend to “bleed” profusely if they are pruned when growing, so this late winter pruning is perfect.

It’s also a good time to prune fruit trees, and if it’s been several years since you’ve done it, they probably really need it. Airflow and light are crucial for disease-prone fruit trees, so an open canopy is important.

Most tree pruning is fairly straightforward. Start by removing dead, broken or diseased branches, which can be done at any time of the year. Then remove crossing branches by selecting the stronger branch or the one that is growing outward. Then remove weak branches to thin further. And water sprouts — those vigorous upright growths that seems to come out of nowhere —  should always be removed. Don’t remove more than a third of the branches, and preferably even less, in a single year.

My espalier fruit trees, which are trained to grow flat against a fence or wall, are very simple to prune. I just remove all long growth to a fruiting spur or about the length of my finger, always cutting to a bud.

Winter pruning does have some drawbacks, including that it can limit flowering on trees or shrubs that bloom in spring. The flower buds are formed at the end of the season, so dormant pruning eliminates these buds, something you’ll notice if you do a major prune on a crabapple tree, for instance.

If you get yourself on a schedule of a light pruning (or at least checking to see if a tree needs pruning; many don’t) every year, you’ll never have to worry about sacrificing too much of that spring beauty in any given year.

You’ve got a little time. Most trees stay dormant through March in Wisconsin. But this is one job you can happily check off your list any time now.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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