Grumpy’s Winter Pruning Guide — Part 2

January 16, 2012 | By | Comments (11)

Well, now that the college football season is over (I find that beer lessens the withdrawal, but doesn’t cure it completely), winter mauling of trees and shrubs by bored sports addicts is in high gear. Last week, I provided guidelines to prevent ghastly mauling of shrubs in winter. This week, I shall address trees. Ladies, please hide ANYTHING your man could use to cut with (including diamond-studded dental floss), until you have read this.

Which trees are OK to prune now and which ones aren’t? Here goes.

Beech — You won’t find this magnificent native tree in garden centers, so if you have one, it’s one that was already there. It tends to branch low. I like to remove some of the lower limbs (“limb up”) to reveal the beautiful, silvery bark. OK to prune now.

Birch — Prune for the same reasons as beech, but not now. Cut branches bleed sap as spring approaches. Prune it in summer.

Bradford pear — Cut to ground now and plant something else. Click here to find out why.

Chaste tree 005

Chaste tree

Chaste tree (Vitex) — Chaste tree blooms on new growth, so winter is the time to prune. It’s so twiggy, it actually requires annual pruning to keep from looking like a real mess. There are two ways to go about it. First, you can cut the tree to the ground every winter. New growth will sprout in spring and grow amazingly fast, up to about 6 feet. You will also get big flower clusters. However, Grumpy likes chaste trees with old gnarled trunks, so I prune mine differently, almost like I prune a crepe myrtle. I choose 4-5 main trunks and let them grow. Then in winter, I completely clear out all side branches and twigs up to a height of 6 feet. If a bird can fly through the middle of it unimpeded, you’ve done it right.

Chinese elm (lacebark elm) — Prune for the same reasons as beech and birch. Now is the best time.

Chinese pistache — Doesn’t need much pruning, but now is OK.

Crabapple — See “Fruit trees” below.



Crepe myrtle — No one has excoriated the odious practice of crepe murder more than the Grump. Winter is the best time to prune, but DO NOT use saws to reduce trunks to ugly stumps. Likewise, do not cut back branches to the same point every year, creating ugly knobs. Instead, realize that most crepe myrtles are TREES. Let them grow upright and tall with 4-5 main trunks. To better reveal the beautiful bark, prune away all side branches growing from these trunks up to a height of 4-5 feet. It’s OK to remove the old seed pods, although leaving them on will not reduce blooming.


Crepe Murder

In Grumpy’s estimation, most people commit crepe murder  because the crepe myrtle they planted grows twice as big as they thought it would. You can avoid this by choosing a semi-dwarf crepe myrtle that grows only 8-12 feet tall. Click here for more information on them. For detailed info on how Grumpy prunes his big crepe myrtle, click on “Crepe Myrtle Pruning Step-By-Step.”

Dogwood — Needs little pruning. Prune after it finishes blooming.

Flowering cherry — There are many popular kinds (‘Yoshino,’ ‘Okame,’ ‘Kwanzan,’ weeping) that bloom in spring. So don’t prune now or you’ll cut off the flowers. Prune right after they finish flowering. But take it easy — they don’t need much. Just remove any suckers from the bottom and any crossing or rubbing branches.

Fruit trees (apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum) — These trees bloom in spring, so you might expect Grumpy to say don’t bloom until flowering is over. But actually, winter is the best time. One reason is that fruit trees tend to grow dense and twiggy. It’s hard to see into them when they have leaves. Another is that if you let all the branches bloom, the tree will set more fruit than it can develop and the resulting fruits will be small and less sweet. Thickly branched fruit trees are also susceptible to disease. So what you want to do is thin out the branches in winter. Remove suckers from the bottom and also watersprouts (shoots that grow straight up from the main branches without branching). Also remove branches that are crossing, rubbing, or growing through the center of the tree.

Ginkgo — Needs little pruning. OK to prune now.



Goldenrain tree — It blooms on new growth, so winter and early spring are good times to prune.

Hawthorne — The thorns are vicious, so I’d say prune whenever you happen to find a pair of leather gloves that cover your entire forearms. Otherwise, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Honeylocust — OK to prune now.

Japanese magnolia — Hardly ever needs pruning. Find something else to do.

Maple — Don’t prune now, as maples will bleed sap from cuts in late winter. Prune maples in summer.

Maples 003

Sugar maple

Needle-leaf evergreens (conifers) — These generally have a more formal and tidy shape than deciduous trees, so you prune them mainly to control size. It’s OK to prune now, but remember — never cut back a branch beyond its innermost needles or it will die.

Oak — OK to prune now.

Palm — OK to remove old, dead palm fronds, but don’t touch the growing point at the top of the trunk or the palm will die.

Pecan — OK to prune now. Don’t want to into a lot of detail here, because training a young pecan for nut production is a multi-year process that takes too  much room to describe. Besides, if you have a pecan in your yard, it’s probably too big to prune, except for the lowest branches. Let Grumpy just say that for most homeowners, placement of this tree  is more important than pruning. Because of it’s wide-spreading, vase-shape, it’s one of the first to topple in a windstorm. I wouldn’t want mine close to the house.

Southern magnolia — OK to prune now. Always cut back to a leaf or bud or else remove the branch entirely.


Coming Up — The Best of What’s New

Later this week, Grumpy will be flying to south Florida to attend TPIE (Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition), the country’s largest show of tropical flowering and foliage plants, as well as visit his friends at Costa Farms to see all of the latest and greatest annual and perennial flowers in their trial gardens. My next post will present some of the newest plants that have my salivary glands working overtime.

















  1. Steve Bender

    Absolutely. You can also thin the fruit before it ripens to take some of the weight off of the branches.

    January 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm
  2. Stephen Korenek

    What about satsuma orange trees, can pruning be done to prevent thin spindily limbs from sagging so much when full of fruit?

    January 20, 2013 at 10:16 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    My guess would be you planted white trumpet lilies and you can’t change the color.

    March 9, 2012 at 3:26 pm
  4. GK

    My trumpet lilies all bloom white. Does something need to be added to the soil? (North Texas heavy clay) GK

    March 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm
  5. UrsulaV

    Thank you, Grumpy! Going after the St. John’s wort now!

    January 24, 2012 at 4:46 pm
  6. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    You are correct, sir.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:47 am
  7. Landscaping Portland | M. D. Vaden Arborist

    Funny about the Bradford Pear.
    But I agree. At least around here near Portland and Beaverton, those are such a brittle tree, even the new “improved” varieties.
    Wasn’t it the author Dirr, who wrote that they are “genetically prone to self-destruction”?
    From Oregon … MDV

    January 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    I’m going to guess that you’re looking at a crabapple.
    Can I help it if I’m an unrepentant Anglophile?
    Have never written an article about inkberry, but prune just like you would any other holly. Cut the swamp sunflower to the ground now. Clethra doesn’t need pruning, but you can cut the seedheads off. Prune St. John’s wort now. Prune the Carolina allspice after it blooms.

    January 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm
  9. UrsulaV

    I’ve got a couple of shrubs that you didn’t cover, and since I’m still new to pruning (and terrified) I was hoping you’d have some insights.
    Inkberry holly — I want this to be a hedge. Is there an article or book somewhere on “So you want to turn a perfectly good plant into something resembling a hedge” ?
    Clethra alnifolia (sweet pepperbush)– the seed heads tend to stay on. Can I chop them off? Would I be better served to chop back the swamp sunflower that keeps trying to eat it?
    Hypericum prolificum (Shrubby St. John’s Wort) — This one has really awesome flowers. I’m trying to keep it fairly compact, but I fear to injure flower set.
    Carolina allspice — It was so vigorous last fall, I thought that I could cut the longest wands that were shooting up without hurting it. It leafed out immediately at the cuts, and I wound up with something that resembles those undersea tubeworms. These flank my steps, so my shame is obvious to the mailman and my mother in law. Help?

    January 18, 2012 at 9:46 am
  10. esh

    Grumpy – “Hawthorne” should be spelled as “Hawthorn”. Love the advice on the ‘bradford’ pears!

    January 17, 2012 at 8:43 am
  11. Wheeler

    Tyring to find a tree. Live in VA Zone 7. Small tree with red berries attached to the braches in the winter. This tree looks to grow about 15 to 20 and spread about the same. Looked at hawthorns, but the berries hand from little stems from the tree. These berries grow up and down the brach as if they were attached right to it. Do you have any ideas? Also, single stem treee. Thanks.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:43 pm

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