A GROWING CONCERN: How to make the cut in winter pruning

THE END OF this year has been interesting to say the least.

First, an unseasonably warm frost-free October and November, with dahlias in bloom past Thanksgiving and the lawnmower still working overtime.

Then — blam! — a hard frost, ice on the pond, top layer of your ground frozen, snow, snow and then more snow.

Now I hear we can blame the Canadians (eh), since cold air out of the Fraser River valley in Canada, all the way down from the Rocky Mountains, is spilling out over us here in the Pacific Northwest, driving the thermometer down below freezing.

But in an effort to make lemonade out of lemons, let me illuminate the silver lining of the cold winter weather.

I have written before how wonderfully mild weather is here and how it can sometimes even be too mild as far as “sitting dormancy” in many cold-dependent plants is concerned.

With the chill of recent weather, this means that now is the ideal time to begin the annual winter ritual of pruning all your conifers, deciduous trees, orchard trees and various woody ornamentals along with ground covers, which all prefer a winter prune.

We have had numerous hard frosts, so it is the ideal time these next few weeks.

With that in mind, I want to review the two cuts involved in all pruning.

That’s right, for all your plants and their individual needs, there are only two types of pruning cuts.

Two types of cuts

Thinning cuts are the ones people should do most of the time but don’t.

A thinning cut removes a branch, stem, limb, cane or lateral at the point where it radiates from another. You cut it off at its point of origin.

This thinning cut does not produce any new growth at the spot of the cut but rather diverts energy to that segment’s other tips. That in turn produces more flowers, fruit and leaves.

It also permanently removes that segment of growth now and in the future, which can be really advantageous because branches will no longer grow into the house, sidewalk, etc.

Heading cuts

Heading cuts, however, produce new growth at the exact spot of the cut, usually manifesting as two or more new shoots, and is achieved by cutting across a trunk, cane, stem, branch, limb or lateral above a node.

Nodes are areas along the plant’s non-foliage growth that have or could have leaves, branches, stems or lateral growing out from them.

Nodes are often little scars or strange shapes, rings around the branch or stem.

If one cuts just one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch above them, then plant hormones are released and new growth occurs.

Why head off?

That’s why we head off the create lush plants, more flowers, more fruit, thicker hedges or a better windscreen.

But if you do heading cuts, you must do thinning cuts later or your plant turns into a thicket — a dense mass of live and dead organic material.

And when you head off, the first node will be the one that grows the fastest and best in the exact direction it is pointing.

That is why you head it off at the node going in the direction you desire.

There you go, the art of pruning. Now go forth and be a gardening master.


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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