Late Winter Pruning


by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener



Like most people, once March rolls around I am itching to get outdoors and get my hands in some dirt or on some tools. Late winter or early spring, before new growth appears, are considered the best times to prune most plants.  During this time a plants wounds will heal quickly without threat of disease or insect infestation.

Landscape plants can be pruned to reduce or maintain their size, to remove undesirable growth, to remove dead or damaged branches and to rejuvenate older plants to produce more vigorous foliage, flowers and fruits.  In some cases it is necessary to prune to prevent damage to property.

Pruning plants while they are dormant offers several advantages.  Dormant season pruning allows you to see the structure of the plant clearly, a real help when you are trying to shape a tree or shrub and it gives you a good excuse to get outdoors to enjoy some nice weather when its too early for most other gardening chores.

There are proper techniques to follow when pruning.  Plants that bloom in early spring such as forsythia, pussy willow and crabapple will need to be pruned later in the spring after their blooms fade.  Such early bloomers produce their buds on last year’s wood, so pruning before blossoming will remove many potential blooms.

While it is recommended that a tree or shrub be allowed to develop its natural shape as much as possible, there are times that weak branches or branches that have formed at a poor angle to the trunk need to be cut back.  Look for crossed branches that rub or interfere with each other and those that form narrow crotches.  Pruning such branches will prevent future issues. Thin this type of growth by removing the branch at its point of origin, leaving a small stub of about ½ inch.  Pruning too close to the trunk opens the plant up to extensive decay.  Never remove more than one third of a plant at a time.

Don’t forget about those suckers and watersprouts.  Suckers are little shoots that grow from the base of a tree and watersprouts are considered the above ground version of a sucker, sometimes growing in clusters from a single point.  They are a waste of a trees energy that steals growth from the original or main plant.  Give them a clip before they get too big to easily remove.

Evergreen trees are not pruned by the same methods as most other plants.  You can encourage denser trees by pinching the “candles” of new growth that emerge in late spring.  Pinch off half of a candle when it reaches a length of about 2 inches.  Using a sharp knife or your fingers will not damage the surrounding needles.

To encourage fast healing of wounds, use sharp equipment that will give you a clean, smooth cut.  Avoid tearing the bark, especially on larger branches.  Make a slant cut as this will prevent water from collecting in the cut and will promote quicker healing.  Clean blades with alcohol between each cut to discourage the spread of any disease, should it be present.  Finish up with another dose of alcohol and then oil the blade to prevent rusting.


As always, Happy Gardening!

More information about gardening and related subjects is available online at  The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.