Seems everyone is eager to get their landscapes cleaned up and ready for winter. With the beautiful weather we've had lately, I can understand the itch to get outside.
However, I can assure you it's best to wait a little longer on pruning those deciduous plants.
In Oklahoma, the absolute best time to prune is in the dead of winter, when the plants are fully dormant. Mid-November to Mid-February is when we get our coldest temperatures, and there are several reasons for pruning at this time. First, with the leaves off the tree, you can see the overall shape and exactly what you are removing. In addition, because the tree lacks leaves, clean up may be easier. Second, some trees are heavy ‘bleeders', or exude a lot of sap. Sap leakage will be minimized when pruning in the dormant season. Third, insect and disease populations will be slim and won't tend to colonize open wounds. Lastly, pruning at this time, before any new growth emerges, ensures you will not disrupt any floral displays. This is extremely important for crape myrtles and roses that bloom on new wood.
The next question is always “how much can I take off?” And for the most part, I've noticed pruning is like trimming sideburns or bangs: if you do it yourself, you may end up bald or with a mullet. For most plants, no more than one-third of the overall growth should be taken off in one season. If you really want to hack something down, spread it out over several seasons. The amount you can safely remove in a year is even lower for fruit trees, and shouldn't exceed more than 10 percent of the overall growth. And remember to take a step back and access your progress once in a while.
Taking a little off the tips overall or giving “haircuts” is discouraged, while selective pruning is the best. This includes removing dead limbs, crossing or rubbing branches, crowded growth, sucker growth, and bunchy growth or “witches broom.” Promoting a natural looking, open canopy on plants and trees is best, by always pruning to an outward facing bud.
This is the time for me to make my plea: please, please, please no topping or dehorning!
Topping is the worst, most stressful thing you can do to a tree, besides cutting it down. This method produces weakly attached sprouts and unsightly witches broom.
Always strive to prune your plants correctly. If you have trees that need to be pruned, or you desperately want to save, remove broken limbs promptly. Jagged limbs will not heal correctly leading to other problems. In addition, do not leave stubs or make a cut in the middle of a branch and leave it. There is a natural swelling where a branch meets the trunk.
This area is referred to as the branch collar, and is an active area of dividing cells and growth. When you prune at a 45 degree angle just to the outside of the branch collar, your tree has the best chance of healing. In addition, remove the weight from large limbs before making your final pruning cut. After removing limbs, no pruning paint or sealants are necessary. If pruned correctly, the tree will heal itself.
Tracey Payton Miller is a horticulture educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.