Your winter pruning jobs
Not sure what to prune now? We share the plants to chop back in winter and how to do it
To misquote the famous song, ‘I can see clearly now, the leaves have gone’. Winter is the season of bare stems and skeleton shrubs, which makes pruning much easier. It’s much simpler to identify stems that are broken, too long or growing in unwanted places when they are devoid of leaves. That said, if the weather stays mild, some plants can be reluctant to let go of their foliage, roses in particular, and getting rid of old leaves is as important for plant health as the pruning itself. Wait for a gloriously dry, sunny day when there’s a healthy nip in the air and the ground isn’t wet under your feet. A day like this is made for a good therapeutic snipping session!
More pruning advice:
- Chop and trim in winter
- Tips for winter pruning dormant plants
- Nine tips for winter pruning
- How to winter prune trees and shrubs
Why prune now
Pruning plants in winter helps to get them into a good shape before they start growing again. Some plants will have outgrown their space during the previous growing season and now is the time to keep them in check. It is also time to remove stems that are growing into others and making the framework of shrubs, roses, or trees look messy.
If plants are left as a tangled mess it can lead to disease, because of poor airflow, and make picking fruits difficult. Winter pruning of fruit crops will channel energy into fruit production and the hard pruning of roses at the end of winter will ensure an abundant display of good quality flowers. Donning a coat, some wellies and gloves and spending just a short while pruning can have big results, as soon as the following spring and summer. It is one of gardening’s most rewarding tasks.
What to prune now
Prune bush roses in late winter for an early display of flowers next year. If you leave it until March – which was traditionally considered rose pruning time – then you are likely to be pruning off stems that are already holding fat new shoots. Pruning these off in March means that the plant has to go back to square one and start producing new shoots from scratch again. Instead, use sharp secateurs or bypass loppers to cut back each stem up to 10cm (4in) from ground level in February.
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If you want a reasonably tall plant, don’t cut back quite so hard. Completely remove all spindly, thin growth right back to the base, because it won’t be able to display flowers well if left intact. If you have large shrub roses that are a prominent feature in the garden, don’t cut them back as hard. Remove all crossing stems and stems growing in the wrong direction.
Also, completely remove one-third of the thickest stems, cutting them right off at the base. Shorten the remaining stems by up to three-quarters, depending on how tall you want the plant to be. Finally, clear up and remove any of last year’s leaves from the ground or from the stems that have been left intact on all roses. This will greatly reduce the risk of blackspot affecting your plants early.
Apple and pear trees
Established apples and pears that are growing upright, untrained as a ‘normal tree’ are best pruned now to keep them in shape, prevent them from getting too big and helping them to produce more fruit. The aim is to end up with an open-centred tree.
- Start by removing any crossing or rubbing branches, cutting them back to where they join a thicker branch. Make sure you make a clean cut and don’t leave a little stump.
- Remove any broken stems or those showing signs of disease. Cut back to just above a bud. Check that the top of the stem where you have cut doesn’t look brown or diseased. Keep cutting back until the cut looks ‘clean’.
- Reduce the height of the leading shoot and side branches, cutting them back by a third.
- Identify new sideshoots made last year (they will be thin) and shorten them by half, cutting just above an outward-facing bud.
- Look out for short fruit spurs (very small shoots with rounded flower buds) and prune out any shoots that have grown from them, cutting them back to where they grew from.
- On very old trees, lots of these spurs can develop together and if left, it results in lots of fruits that don’t all have room to grow to full size. Remove some so there is a ‘full fruit-sized’ space between each one and also remove spurs on the undersides of branches where the fruits won’t be exposed to sun.
A few apple varieties such as the popular cooking apple ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ and early eating apple ‘Discovery’ can produce apples on the tips of their stems. Cut back the oldest fruited branches, cutting them back to a young shoot, to prevent the branches from getting too long. This will make picking easier.
Stack up thick prunings from fruit trees in a damp, sheltered corner of the garden. Shorten long shoots before stacking them up if you haven’t got much room available. This can provide a valuable habitat for insects and reptiles, and help encourage a healthy ecosystem in your garden.
The good news is that blueberries need little pruning but a few timely snips will help boost your crop
- If your blueberry isn’t very bushy, shorten the long main stems by half to encourage it to produce a bushier shape
- Cut back any stems with diseased growth, cutting back into clean wood
- Cut back branches that fruited in the year just gone, cutting back to the next healthy young shoot further down the stem
- Completely remove very thin spindly stems
The main aim of pruning gooseberries in winter is to encourage fruiting spurs that will bear fruit next year. Do this by cutting back all of the growth made this year, cutting it back to four buds from the base. If you have an old gooseberry bush – when I was a child growing up, all gooseberry bushes were old – also cut out a few of the oldest, thickest branches right back to the base to allow more space in between the ones that are left. This should make picking fruits a bit less hazardous next summer!
You can prune red and whitecurrants in the same way as gooseberries.
I think that the sour taste of fresh blackcurrants might just be my favourite of all the soft fruits. They taste of July. If I’m eating fresh blackcurrants, it’s because I’ve grown them and it can’t be any other time of year. To get the best crop, cut back any stems that are two years old or more, cutting them back to the base to encourage new shoots. The old stems will be thicker and darker than the young one-year-old stems, which will bear the fruit next.
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Group 3 clematis flower on growth produced in the same year, which makes pruning uncomplicated (a word that is always music to my ears!). Just cut each stem back to 15cm (6in) from the base at the end of winter and the plant will start producing new shoots from the base as the weather warms up. How do you know if your clematis is in Group 3 (it sounds a bit like a class at school!)? Varieties of Clematis viticella are in this group, as well as popular forms such as ‘Etoile Violette’, ‘Polish Spirit’ and ‘Princess Diana’. If you’re buying a new clematis, keep the label safe so you know what you’re dealing with. If you don’t know what your clematis is, those that flower in late winter and spring are in Group 1, those that flower in spring and again in summer are in Group 2 and clematis that start flowering in late summer are in Group 3.
Trimming back these glorious climbers now will help you get that ‘old fashioned chocolate box’ display of flowers in summer. All the shoots that the plant made between spring and autumn are best cut back now, snipping them so that there are just two or three buds on each shoot. This will allow the flowers to hang down without being obscured by a lot of leafy growth next summer.
If you’ve got a very old wisteria (no, not jealous at all!) then winter is the time to cut back old stems that are making the plant congested. Remove a few completely if you have lots of old, tangled growth in close proximity. Aim to leave the plant so that it has evenly spaced growth all around. This will also help air circulate well around the plant. Use a sharp pruning saw when cutting older growth and be prepared to cut back long branches in stages to make the job more manageable.
An old wall covered in deliciously scented honeysuckle flowers is perhaps the peak of cottage garden bliss. But it can turn sour because the plants are beautiful rogues, not known for their elegance if they are left to their own devices for a few years. If you’ve got a honeysuckle that has become a bit of a monster and sprawled into unwanted places, or if it has become a bit bare, woody and unproductive, cut it all back to 60cm (2ft) from ground level, using some sharp bypass loppers. Tie-in the remaining stems, spacing them out and tying them to their supports.
Thrifty tipSharpening and oiling your pruning tools will help them last longer. A good pair of well-serviced secateurs and loppers can last for many years, as well as doing the best job possible in improving the yields of fruit on your bushes and trees. Use a sharpening stone to sharpen up the blades on secateurs and loppers and dismantle them where possible, so you can clean and lubricate the parts well. WD-40 and a cloth will do a good job. Diamond sharpening tools are relatively inexpensive. Use one to sharpen the angled side of your cutting blades. Put steady pressure along the blade with the tool, moving it away from you. If you haven’t done this task for a while it will feel like you have a new tool by the time you’ve finished.
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