Winter Pruning and Trimming

Mid to late winter is a good time for pruning and trimming. This is true for three reasons: first, deciduous trees, bushes and vines have dropped their leaves, making it easier to see the shape of the tree, vine or bush. Herbs and other perennial plants have also died back. The only drawback to this is that if you are clearing unwanted trees or sprouts, it can be more difficult to identify the tree when all you have is its general shape and the color and texture of its bark. Second, autumn trimming reduces the leaf surface and deprives the plant of nutrients just when it is in the process of going dormant. Third, several varieties of fungus are more active in the autumn, increasing the risk of infecting your trees. For these three reasons alone, winter trimming is a good idea.


  • A sharp pair of sheers
  • A sharp pair of long-handled loppers
  • A pruning saw
  • A garden rake
  • A tree identification book (if the property is new to you)
  • Gloves – to protect your hands from brambles and contact with resinous plants that might cause an allergic reaction
  • A hat – because you can get a sunburn in winter.

Trees enter a dormancy period in winter. Deciduous trees drop their leaves, and the sap retreats toward the roots – in part, at least. During summer, lush growth can obscure the trees or it can obstruct your ability to get into areas of your garden or yard. Pests such as mosquitos and other insects have also gone dormant for the winter – their absence will increase your enjoyment of time spent out-of-doors. Although this is something of a side issue, trimming trees and cleaning beds provides the gardener with a reason to spend at least an hour or two per day outside in the wintry sunshine, which provides a variety of health benefits to the person. Winter is also a good time to get a jumpstart on weed-killing mulch, measuring and reorganizing beds and clearing out unwanted growth.

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Identify the trees, shrubs and other plants that you wish to keep in your garden. Mark them with a strip of plastic that will shred and fall away as the tree grows. Avoid markers that will strangle the tree or become embedded in its bark. This can be done in several different ways. A fun way to do it is to visit your woodlot, orchard or yard with a person who is knowledgeable about varieties of trees. This is a unique opportunity, in some cases, to bond with an older family member. Another way is to anticipate your winter pruning in the fall, and to mark the trees that you wish to keep at that time. It is much easier to identify a tree when it is in full leaf. If neither of these two options are available, purchase or check out from the library a tree identification book. A good one will not only display leaves, but will show bark texture and color and twig and bud structure. Finally, a high-tech method of identification is to use a digital camera and take pictures of your trees, and then browse tree identification websites to look for a match.


Clear unwanted growth. In suburban and country areas where there are trees with wind-blown seeds, wandering root systems, and even squirrel activity, tree seeds wind up in the oddest places – many of them in areas where you truly do not want them. Bedding plants such as day lilies and irises tend to conceal these young intruders with lush summer growth. In winter, when these perennial plants have died back, it is easy to see the young tree sprouts sticking up in the flower beds. Ideally, these should be dug or pulled out before they can gain a toehold, but if the ground is frozen or if you have an aversion to weeding at this level, then use a sharp set of pruning shears or loppers to cut the sprouts off at ground level. Then, while the flowers are below ground, set your lawn mower high to avoid chopping tubers and run over the area. This has the added effect of cutting down other winter weed growth.


Prune desirable plants to promote spring growth. It should be noted here that not all plants or trees need trimmed, and that others only need trimming occasionally. When you do trim a tree, do your work on a mild, dry day. Cut out any dead or diseased limbs first. Next trim out excessive growth, particularly at the crown of the tree to promote penetration of light and air to all parts of it. When trimming, cut where a branch or twig joins to another. Keep your tools sharp to minimize trauma to the tree by facilitating a clean cut. After trimming a tree with dead or diseased limbs, clean your tools before using them on another tree. This can be done simply by washing them in a solution of bleach and then wiping them dry. Let them air dry thoroughly before using on another tree.


Cleanup. In a large yard where there are a variety of trees and shrubs, winter trimming and pruning can produce quite a pile of waste material. If you live in the country, you can either designate an area as a “brush heap” or you can burn the trimmings.

A word of caution about burning: aside from the obvious fire safety rules, be extremely careful not to burn poison ivy. Smoke from this resinous plant can cause an allergic reaction. Also, wash your hands and face with hand soap and water after working with unidentified vines. Apply an anti-itch lotion if any part of your face or hands feel itchy – this might help get you ahead of an accidental allergic reaction. If the itching persists or is accompanied by swelling, consult your doctor.

If you live in the suburbs or an urban area, ask your city utilities company about an appropriate place to drop off your tree trimmings. Many cities now maintain an area where tree branches, leaves and other debris can be disposed of without adding organic materials to your local landfill.

Winter pruning and trimming can help you get ready for spring planting, and can reduce the time necessary to prepare garden beds for production. It is also an opportunity to improve the appearance and arrangement of plant growth before the onset of spring growth.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief tutorial on winter trimming and pruning. If you like it, share it. If you have insights that you would like to add, please leave a comment or message. We are always glad to hear from our readers, and hope that you will find this article informative and beneficial.