It’s Time for Winter Pruning

It’s winter, and many of your plants may need a good pruning. Here’s a quick primer to get you started…

What is Pruning?

Pruning is the removal or reduction of plant material that is no longer useful or that is unwanted. It can promote new growth by removing parts of the plant that are using up energy, which redirects that energy to the remaining parts. This helps the plant to produce better flowers, fruit, and healthy new vegetative growth.

The reason for pruning is to improve the health, value, or aesthetic appeal of the plant. However, if done incorrectly, it can weaken or even kill a plant. Making sure you are using proper techniques and pruning at the right time of year are practices that will be crucial to your success.

When should I Prune?

As a general rule, heavy pruning should be done when the plant is dormant or in the early Spring right before new growth occurs. Of course, tidying up dead limbs and and messy looking growth can be done year round, but larger cuts for shape and structure should be done while the plant is in its dormant state.

It is true that most plants go dormant in the winter, but in California many of our native plants go dormant in the summer because of the heat and lack of water. The dormancy during these months helps the plant to survive the long dry summers. Observe your plants growth cycles and be sure you are pruning at the right time or look your plants up online to find out when the dormancy period is in your zone.

If you can manage it, shape and structure your plant while it is still young. If you can train a younger plant to grow how you want it to, then you will have to do less pruning when the plant is older and larger. Not only is pruning older plants more difficult, it is also riskier. Younger plants put out more growth tissue, so it is easier for a younger plant to heal from a pruning wound than an older plant. Of course, older plants do need to be pruned back for different reasons such as limbs growing into buildings or utility wires, or leggy, unruly growth. If done with care, pruning older shrubs can be done by the home gardener but pruning larger and older trees can be quite the task, and is work best left to a trained arborist.

Pruning creates a wound that makes the plant susceptible to disease. Be sure that when you are pruning, it’s not wet outside and there is not going to be rain for a few days after you have pruned.

Pruning Tools

The home gardener can use a few different types of tools for pruning including hand held pruners, loppers, pruning saws, and hedge shears.

Cleaning your tools before, during, and after pruning is critical to preventing the spread of disease from one plant to another. When you are finished for the day, clean your tools with alcohol, then wipe the blades with oil and store in a dry place to prevent rust.

Types of Pruning

There are two basic types of pruning: Thinning and heading.

Heading can be done with your hand held pruners and removes part of a limb or branch. When heading, the terminal bud is removed and the cut is made about a quarter inch above a lateral bud. This type of pruning sends energy into lateral buds making the plant bushier.

Thinning removes the entire branch or limb to bring more sunlight to the inner branches and create more airflow. Thinning can be done with loppers or pruning saws, depending on the thickness of the branch.

Plan Carefully

When you are pruning it is easy to get carried away, so be sure that you have a plan before you start. Look at your plant carefully, and decide how you want it to look and what you want to remove. Think about why you are pruning. Is it just to remove dead limbs? Is it to remove crossing branches? Is it for structure? Is it to promote new growth? Remember, the less cuts you make the better, especially if it is an older plant. Take a step back from time to time to look at the plant and be sure you are creating the desired effect.

Further Reading

For an excellent four part article on pruning California native plants by Allison Levine of the California Native Plant Society follow this link:


Thanks for reading this quick primer on pruning. If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to let us know.