Winter Pruning of Deciduous and Fruit Trees

It is a common misconception that tree maintenance cannot be carried out during the winter months, and that deciduous tree care isn’t as important once the leaves fall in autumn.

However, winter is the optimum time of year for pruning and tree removal services. In fact, some major pruning work should only be carried out during winter, such as pruning fruit trees to ensure maximum fruit production for the next year.

During winter, trees and shrubs enter dormancy. Deciduous trees and plants lose their leaves and ‘rest’ until a spark of warmer weather prompts them into a new bloom of growth.

Benefits of Winter Pruning of Deciduous Trees

Dormant pruning has many benefits, not only for the trees, but for the person pruning.

1. Easier to assess tree structure

After the leaves have fallen in autumn, the trees structure is revealed. It is then easier to identify dead or dangerous branches. Because of this, we can prevent excessive pruning, as the trees leafless structure will reveal which branches desperately need removing.

No more than one quarter of a tree’s crown should be removed at one time, and when too much is removed, the tree will become structurally and nutritionally deficient. This can eventually lead to more serious problems in the future, such as the tree falling in harsh weather or needing removal.

2. Preparation for Spring

Late winter is a great time to prune, as trees and shrubs will be able to ‘recover’ quickly in the spring with new growth.

3. Protect from Disease

Winter pruning will also help your trees and shrubs avoid serious diseases that are active and spread easily during spring and summer. Dutch Elm Disease, Oak wilt and fire blight are all common diseases that can affect different species of trees in the spring.

Dead or broken branches are a great place for insects and parasites to enter the tree, where they then further the spread of disease. During the winter, bacteria, fungi, insects and parasites that cause and/ or spread disease are either dead or dormant. Therefore, diseases are less likely to spread by pruning in the winter as are not around to invade pruning cuts.

4. Less stress for trees

Sap is not as active during the winter. Therefore, cuts are less likely to ‘bleed’ and the tree/ shrub will sustain less of a shock, rather than being chopped while sap is in full flow.

5. Preventing possible damage

Dead, dying or damaged trees can be highly dangerous in the winter, particularly when we experience blustering winds, which have known to cause even strong and healthy trees to fall. Winter pruning makes trees safer, and can also rejuvenate the weaker trees by removing dead, diseased wood.

Oak tree winter pruning     Oak tree winter pruning

(Photos taken during a winter pruning job, carried out by Longacre.)

Why major pruning should not be carried out in Summer or Autumn

By pruning in the late summer or early autumn you are stimulating new growth that may not harden off before the cold weather. This can then cause problems during the winter. It is best to leave all major pruning jobs until winter.

Summer and autumn pruning offers different benefits to winter pruning:

  • Improves the overall look of the tree
  • Opens up the tree to increase air flow and allows more light penetration
  • Pruning large trees and shrubs that have grown too large or are getting in the way.
  • Benefits of Winter Pruning for Fruit Trees

It is easy to get your fruit trees into good shape for next summer, with a few simple winter pruning guidelines. Without pruning in general, you may notice that your fruit trees can become disheveled and less productive.

Cutting back shoots and branches while the trees are dormant, allows for sap to concentrate into fewer buds. This results in strong growth. In the earlier years of a fruit trees life, when you want it to grow strong and develop a sturdy framework of branches, it is vital that you only prune in the dormant season.

Once the tree has reached it’s required shape and size, the majority of pruning can be done in summer. However do note that winter pruning will contribute to the production of fruit next year.

Apple and Pear Trees

Medium to large apple trees highly benefit from having vigorous young shoots pruned, and thinned overcrowding branches during winter. Opening up the centre of the tree will allow a good circulation of air and sun, both vital ingredients for good fruit growth in summer. Pruning freshly planted apple and pear trees (and those up to 4 years old) in winter, allows them to form a good structure and framework of branches.

Always remove dead fruits from around the base of the tree, as these are a breeding ground for fungi. A thick layer of mulching around the base of fruit trees will help protect the roots from the harsh cold weather. The soil around fruit trees is typically covered with broken branches and leaves. This high-carbon mulch is the best. Wood chips, straw and leaves are a great mulch combination and will help protect the trees’ roots during the cold months. In spring the mulch will decompose, and provide the soil with a slightly acidic pH, that is great for fruit tree growth and production.

Beech and Leylandii Hedges

Newer hedges require pruning for the first few years after planting, and typically carried out in winter or spring. After this, they only require maintenance trimming, which is carried out between spring and summer.

For beech hedges, formative pruning means on planting, you should cut back the leading and side shoots by one-third, and cut to a well-placed bud. You should repeat this is the second winter to prevent straggly growth. This will also help thicken up the hedge base.

Leylandii is without a doubt the most popular evergreen hedging plant in the UK, with over 55 million already planted in hedgerows, and a phenomenal 300,000 leylandii sold every year. You ideally want to trim your hedge in spring/ summer. Pruning too late in the season will affect the way new foliage is produced in late summer, which gives the hedge protection in the winter.

Winter pruning of Beech hedging   Beech Hedging

(Before and after of a beautiful Beech hedging we maintained last winter.)

Winter Planting

Winter is the optimum time to plant new trees. Always plant Root ball trees immediately after purchase during autumn/ winter. Bare root trees should also be planted immediately, and only during winter. During winter the ground is easier to dig, and trees require minimal maintenance.

The soil takes all summer to warm up, and all winter to cool down. By planting early to mid winter, makes for fairly warm soil conditions. The soil is still cooling down below ground, regardless of the colder temperatures above ground.

This soil allows the trees and shrubs to establish their roots, while also encouraged to grow new roots whilst dormant. By the time early spring approaches, young trees have had the perfect conditions to flourish, and are strong enough for the upcoming warmer weather.

We already have a whole tree planting guide available here. Take a look for more tree planting information.

For more tree care advice, contact our experts today on 07736 933530.