Winter Pruning Tips: What (and Why) to Prune in the Winter

Late winter in the Pacific Northwest is a great time to prune most deciduous plants. Hint: they’re the plants that drop their leaves every winter. Today, we’ll talk about why it’s important to prune our trees, shrubs, and other plants, why winter is an ideal time to prune, what plants to prune (and what not to), and tips for doing it yourself.

Why is it important to prune trees, shrubs, and other plants?

We prune to promote the health of a plant. Dead, damaged, and diseased branches can and should be removed at any time of the year. Leaving these branches is a risk, both for the plant’s health and longevity and for personal damage or injury if it breaks on its own.

Here are other reasons to prune plants:

  • Aid the plant’s structure for:
    • Aesthetic reasons like keeping a plant balanced or for a preferred shape or style
    • Interference with other plants and structures
  • Protect the plant from damage: rubbing branches causes wounds and entry points for pests and disease
  • Promote healthy flower/fruit growth: removing dense areas allow more light and airflow
  • Access, view, and practicality: opening up sightlines, house numbers, or walkways that a plant may be blocking or keeping it more contained
  • Prevent crowding or unruly shoots: removing suckers and water shoots that crowd the trunk and branches, reduce light and airflow, and never mature into a productive branch
    • Pro gardening tip: Tackling suckers in the summer is proven to be more effective
Winter pruning tips

Why is winter a good time to prune?

  1. You can see the shape: Without the leaves, you can see the shape of the tree, shrub, plant, or bush more easily. This way, you can choose what to prune or keep based on the look you’re going for and which branches need to go because of rot, damage, rubbing, cross-over, or aesthetic.
  2. Most deciduous plants are dormant: In the winter, most of a plant’s energy is stored in its roots and not in its growth above ground so pruning cuts can be made with less stress to the tree and without the risk of pests and pathogens entering the tree through the wound.
  3. Winter pruning promotes faster regrowth and fuller spring flowering

When is late winter in the Pacific Northwest in plant zone 9?

We’re writing this from Victoria, BC, Canada, in plant hardiness zone 9. Here’s a handy chart to find out what plant zone you’re in.[1]  For us, late winter is 4 to 6 weeks before spring begins. Generally, that means January until the end of February, and sometimes into March, depending on the weather that year.

Winter pruning tips from the gardening experts

How to decide what can be pruned in the winter

The trees and shrubs that can be pruned in the winter are deciduous plants or those that drop their leaves in fall.

As a rule of thumb: do not prune anything that flowers in early spring.

This is because these early spring flowering plants already have their buds on them. Removing these through pruning will result in the loss of flowers that season, plus it means that the plant is not dormant—and its energy is in the branches already.

Pro gardening tip: Late spring and summer flowering deciduous plants are usually ideal for a winter prune. We’ll get to specific plants that can be pruned this time of year soon.

Rejuvenating trees in the winter

Have a deciduous tree that needs major pruning? If your tree doesn’t need to be removed entirely but requires serious restorative pruning, the best time to do this work is during the winter.

What plants should be pruned in winter?

There are many trees and shrubs to prune in late winter while the plants are still dormant and before the warmer weather returns. Here are some of the winter plants that can be pruned in late winter. Bookmark this for future reference.

  • Fruit Trees: Apple, Cherry, Nectarine, Peach, Plum, Pear
  • Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima)* (Tree of Heaven)
  • Ash
  • Barberry (Berberis species)*
  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa species)
  • Birch *sap will run
  • Bluebeard Shrub
  • Blueberry (Vaccinium species)
  • Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) Invasive in natural areas
  • Buckthorn (Rhamnus species)*
  • Bumald spiraea (Spiraea bumalda)
  • Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
  • Camellia sasanqua
  • Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Cherry
  • Cinquefoil, Shrubby
  • Cypress (Cupressus species)
  • (Dasiphora fruticosa)
  • Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia species)
  • Elm *sap will run
  • Flowering Plum (Prunus blireana)
  • Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides)
  • Glossy Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora)
  • Golden-rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)
  • Hemlock (Tsuga species)
  • Hydrangea paniculate including Peegee (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’) and Hydrangea arborescens (tutorial here)
  • Honeysuckle – Winter (Lonicera fragrantissiam)
  • Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) Invasive species
  • Japanese spiraea (Spiraea japonica)
  • Juniper (Juniperus species)
  • Linden (Tilia species)
  • Maple *sap will run
  • Oak
  • Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa)
  • Privet (Ligistrum species) – can be invasive in natural areas: check for your region.
  • Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Roses  (Rosa species) – except climbers
  • Smoke tree
  • Spirea (Spirea japonica) – not bridalwreath
  • Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)
  • Summersweet (Clethra species)
  • Sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana)
  • Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans)
  • Southern yew (Podocarpus macrophyllus)
  • True cedar (Cedrus species)
  • Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
  • Viburnum species
  • Walnut *sap will run
  • Wisteria (Wisteria species)*
  • Yew (Cephalotaxus and Taxus species)

*Use this list as a general guide but always look up your species before pruning.

Winter gardening 101: What basic tools do you need to prune?

Here’s what should be in your gardening shed or pruning toolbox:

  • Secateurs
  • Loppers
  • Pruning Saw
  • Ladder
  • Sharpener
  • Sanitizer and clean cloth
  • Gloves
  • Protective gear

More advanced tools:

  • Pole Saw
  • Tall ladder
  • Snips
  • Mini Chainsaw

5 Pro gardening tips for a successful winter pruning job

  1. Know what you’re pruning and when: Do your research and make a schedule
  2. Are you up for the job? Learn how to prune before you start
  3. Plan your pruning job: Decide exactly what you want to keep and remove before you cut
  4. Prepare your tools: Decide what tools to use and always keep your tools sharp and clean to prevent diseases
  5. Stay safe: Always wear the proper protective gear, ask for help, and be mindful of your surroundings and any potential dangers (be mindful of your fingers)

To prune or not to winter prune? Ask for help!

Always prune for a specific reason, not just because it’s winter or you think you should.

Still unclear or unsure of what to do? Ask for help! Share photos of your plants with a horticultural society or an online gardening site. Or bring in a professional gardening company, like our gardeners at Costa Verde in Victoria, BC. We’re here and happy to help!

Our pruning experts have the knowledge, training, skills, and (clean and sharp) tools to complete the tasks that your garden needs. Learn more about Costa Verde gardening—and book your next winter prune with us.