Pruning That Does Good

Think it’s still winter? But look at the trees and shrubs in your yard: as soon as the temperatures rise, buds start to swell. The willows are already starting to bloom, despite the snow! Yes, whether it’s early March, mid-March or late March, depending on the year and your particular conditions, when the sap starts to rise, it’s the perfect time to do a little pruning.

Cases Where Pruning Is Useful

Of course, I don’t want to push you to prune just for the sake of it. Pruning can be harmful to woody plants (trees, shrubs, conifers, etc.). It causes wounds that may not heal properly and could then allow insects or diseases to enter.

However, there are many cases where pruning is useful. For example, a crabapple tree that is too branched will have a problem with lack of air circulation and could become susceptible to diseases: one can open it up by removing excess branches. Another case is that of the lower branches of trees that are useful when they are young, but become troublesome as they grow. If you are constantly banging your head on branches while mowing the lawn, this is a good reason to remove them! Finally, branches that are dead, broken or rubbing together or against your house are more of a nuisance than a help, as are suckers (branches growing straight up on fruit trees and lilacs). They can be removed without damaging the health of the tree or shrub.

For most trees, the best time to prune is early spring, before budding.

Why Now?

For most trees, the best time to prune is early in the spring, before budding. This is because their growth for the year is starting or will start soon and healing will then take place more quickly. Also, the presence of abundant snow means that, with snowshoes, you can prune most medium height trees yourself, without the need for specialists, because you’re right at the top. In April, when most of the snow has melted, access to branches is more limited.

Wait until after flowering to prune spring flowering shrubs or trees. Photo: Yann.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions, however. Don’t prune maples and birches in the spring, but rather in mid-summer: their sap flows too abundantly in March and April and a major injury can therefore cause them to lose too much energy. As for conifers, it’s best to wait until their growth is underway (usually in June) before starting to prune them; and for shrubs, pruning is less urgent (no need to use snowshoes to reach them!), but you can still prune decorative shrubs and summer bloomers at snowmelt. Wait until after flowering to prune spring flowering shrubs.

One last note: never let anyone top a large tree, not even a so-called specialist who offers to do it for a fee. This extreme form of pruning of large trees, where all branches are shortened, leaving multiple stumps, is ugly, harmful to their health and unnecessarily costly. Why pay to kill a healthy tree… especially knowing that a beautiful, naturally shaped tree can add thousands of dollars to the value of your home? A poorly pruned and dying tree will lower its value.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “Pruning That Does Good

  1. We try to finish pruning during winter because winter is so brief. Dormancy ends too suddenly to risk pruning too late. However, a few blooming ornamentals get pruned later in summer, and a few even get pruned after spring bloom. I do not like doing so, but it allows them to bloom, and then concentrates growth into stems for the following spring.

  2. The trees in the last photo are pollarded and it appears that it has been done to them before. Look to be maples, not sure. It will do them little harm to be pollarded I would think.

  3. Excellent advice re: topping. Looking at the photo the mulch mountain is just helping this tree along to an even earlier demise.

  4. WoW,, I agree.
    Love the yellow flowers on the Lynwood Gold Forsythia Shrub.

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