Although the colorful lights and decorations of the holidays have been put away, don't let the brown and gray of winter get you down. While the outdoor landscape is no longer glowing with bright colors, artificial or natural, there is still much to admire.Winter is the perfect time to study and enjoy the "architecture" of trees and shrubs, revealed by the absence of foliage and the low angle of the sun. Don't think in terms of Victorian or Colonial but rather excurrent (conical) or decurrent (rounded) shape, branches alternate or opposite. As you admire and study the architecture of the trees and shrubs around you, also take note of any broken, diseased, or rubbing branches.Generally speaking, winter is the best time to prune trees and shrubs -- but the "how" is just as important as the "when." There is an art and science to pruning; however, most pruning for the typical home landscape can be accomplished by the individual homeowner. That said, I encourage you to take a little time to evaluate the plants in your landscape and arm yourself with a little knowledge and the right equipment before you start hacking away.
Proper pruning can ensure long-term health and beauty of trees and shrubs. Most pruning should be done when a tree is young. It is less expensive and easier to remove crossing branches, train a single leader, or restore natural and healthy architecture of smaller plants. Occasional pruning on older and larger trees may be necessary, however, particularly following severe weather events or to remove dead or diseased branches. In these cases, do not hesitate to enlist the services of a certified arborist.Most shrubs, including rhododendrons and azaleas, can be heavily pruned to restore a denser habit. Please note, however, that spring-flowering trees and shrubs -- such as rhododendron, azaleas, and dogwoods -- form their flower buds during the previous growing season (July and August). Late-winter pruning of these plants can result in great disappointment come spring. So wait and enjoy the flowers, then start pruning when the flowers begin to fade.
When to prune
Late winter (February through March) is the best time to prune deciduous trees and shrubs. Needled evergreens (pine and spruce) produce only one flush of growth each year. If a denser habit is desired, or if you want to train a single leader, prune in the spring when the new growth is still soft. Other conifers (arborvitae, cypress, yews) have multiple flushes of growth and thus can be pruned through mid-summer. Regardless of the time of year, hazardous branches should be removed as soon as possible.
How to prune
The old saying "A picture is worth a thousand words" certainly applies to proper pruning techniques. Rather than describe techniques here, I direct you to the North Carolina Botanical Garden's Web site, www.ncbg.unc.edu/pages/50/, where free information is available that discusses technique, tools, and specific guidelines for selected plants. After reviewing this information, if you still have questions, please feel free to call the Botanical Garden any weekday during our Public Service Hour (12 noon to 1 p.m.). We are also offering a pruning workshop this February.