Chop and trim in winter
Discover what you should be cutting back in winter, with David Hurrion
Mild, winter days are a good time to tackle some of the more structural pruning that may be needed on mature shrubs and trees. Now that the leaves have dropped from deciduous woody plants, you can easily assess the shape and position of the branches and stems, and thin out any that are overcrowded – including large limbs, if necessary. This will benefit the health of the plant and also to let more light through to anything that’s growing underneath.
Sap flow in the branches and stems will have slowed or even stopped by late November or the start of December, and making cuts on woody plants in early winter, while the weather is still reasonably mild will allow time for the wounds to dry before any serious frosts. Frost getting into fresh pruning cuts is likely to cause tissues to split and result in die back. This in turn often leads the death of the buds immediately below the cut itself.
More winter pruning advice:
Winter pruning inspiration
Plants featured in this video
Prune grape vines and birch trees
Some plants - such as grape vines and birch trees - will particularly benefit from being pruned while they are fully dormant, preferably before the end of February. By early spring, cut stems are unlikely to heal quickly and are liable to leak large quantities of sap, drastically reducing the health of the plant or even leading to its death!
Leave evergreen shrubs alone
Conversely, during the coldest months of the year, it is best to avoid pruning any evergreen shrubs. The waxy foliage of these plants helps to insulate the branches, as well as deflecting cold air. Cutting into the foliage would remove this valuable insulation, allowing frost to penetrate into the centre of the bush which could kill some of the branches or, in a bad winter, the whole plant. In the same way, evergreen perennials and grasses are best left with as much foliage on as possible, to protect them.
Tidy up herbaceous perennials
Meanwhile herbaceous perennials that die down completely during the winter can be cut back if they are looking very tatty and dishevelled. Prunings from these can be chopped up into small pieces and added to the compost heap, if you have one, where they’ll rot down quickly. Alternatively try mixing the material with fallen leaves and use it as a raw mulch on the surface of soil in borders where it will help insulate the ground – as would happen in nature. By the spring, it will be well on the way to being decomposed, returning valuable fibrous matter and nutrients to the soil.
Lastly, remember to clear away pruning debris as you go… it’s important to make sure there are no branches and twiggy growths that you could slip or stumble on while handling secateurs, loppers and pruning saws.
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