Caring for your tree is a year-round process, but it’s particularly important during the cold months when various stressors can damage your tree if you aren’t careful. Winter, however, is also the best time to prune your tree. During the coldest part of the year, deciduous trees enter a state of dormancy, where their metabolic processes shut down to conserve energy. Trimming them during this time will help to ensure healthy new growth during the spring when they “wake up” once again. While the late winter is the best time to prune, there are a few things to keep in mind, but note that the best course of action may differ depending on the climate and on the individual species.
Always have a purpose when you prune
When you prune a tree, you should always be aware of exactly what you wish to accomplish. Are you pruning for cosmetic reasons, to encourage flower growth in the spring, or to remove dead or damaged branches? Whichever answer you choose will affect the pruning you do. For example, if you want to encourage the growth of flowers, you will need to take the individual species into account. Certain species flower in the late summer; these are the best ones to prune during the late winter or early spring. Trimming your tree during the winter is also best if you want to grow hardy new branches once spring arrives. Note that you should not do any pruning in fall as this is the season when fungal spores are most common and may cause disease in a freshly pruned tree. The cold weather helps to keep insects, bacteria and fungi dormant, thereby protecting your tree from disease.
Remove the weakest branches
During the early spring, when your tree awakens from its yearly dormancy, it will need all the energy it can get. Energy that is wasted on small or damaged branches will weaken the tree overall, so prune these during the late winter. The winter is a great time to inspect your tree for these damaged or dead branches and clear them away. You should also check your tree for any signs of disease. During the winter, you’ll want to clear away any suckers or water sprouts, which grow from the bark of your tree and steal away nutrients. As these suckers will never grow into fully developed branches, they should be removed whenever you see them.
Thin the canopy of your tree
The canopy is the upper part of the tree where the leaves and branches are densest. You’ll want to thin this area periodically to allow for better air circulation. Take great care when you are performing this task, especially in taller trees – safety first! – and make sure not to thin more than a quarter of the branches.
When removing larger limbs, it’s best to use a three step process to do so in order to avoid splitting the wood or otherwise damaging the branches in a way that will invite disease. Start by making a notch about three feet from the base of the limb; then, just past the notch, cut all the way through the limb to remove half of it. Remove the other half by cutting just beyond the branch collar (the area connecting the limb to the trunk). Take care not to cut into the branch collar itself as this will inhibit the healing of the trimmed area. You also want to avoid leaving too much of a stump as opportunistic water sprouts may grow from these.
As you thin the canopy you will also want to remove any limbs that are crossing over one another or are disfigured. It’s a good idea to use a ten percent solution of rubbing alcohol to disinfect your tools before pruning. This will help prevent bacterial and fungal growth in your tree. While bacterial growth is not common during the cold winter months, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Make your own safety a priority
When cutting your tree, always check your tools beforehand. Make sure they are sharp and strong, both for the health of the tree and for your own safety. You should also make sure you have all the necessary safety gear, including eye protection and gloves. Be extra careful when removing large limbs and don’t climb on any part of the tree that looks unsafe. It may seem obvious, but do not attempt to prune your tree during any adverse weather conditions such as rain, snow or heavy wind. It’s also a good idea not to do your tree trimming alone. Having a partner with you who can help keep an eye on things will ensure safety.
If you are unsure of how to proceed when pruning your tree, you can always secure the services of a professional. Having a professional tree service handle your pruning for you can save you a lot of time and effort. They are also trained to remove limbs in the safest way possible and will bring professional equipment to do so.