Pruning Trees and Shrubs

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The questions started a couple of weeks ago. “Is it time to prune my roses?” “Can I limb up my trees down my driveway?”

This mild winter weather certainly beckons me and many others out in the landscape more. I am itching to get a head start on spring’s arrival, and pruning would be a great task for the next few weeks, with a few exceptions. 

Let us begin by saying that the dead of winter is the perfect time to do any major pruning on most trees and shrubs.  They are in their dormant stage and can take it quite well.  Major pruning can be defined as cutting back more than one third of a plant. 

Winter pruning of most shrubs such as roses can be done anytime during the winter according to a regionally known horticulturalist, Felder Rushing.  In Rushing’s excellent book, “Tough Plants for Southern Gardens”, he says there are really no rules across the board for pruning roses.  He says to forget any specific rules you may have heard over the years and simply cut back all the stems of repeat blooming varieties by half!

Regarding landscape trees, let me first share some wisdom that I heard many years ago from renowned Dallas horticulturalist, Neil Sperry, “no plant absolutely has to be pruned.”  A plant will grow naturally so long as it has water, sunlight, and nutrients. Nevertheless, we choose to prune back trees and shrubs because a branch is in the way or because we simply desire a certain shape or perhaps more blooms, more fruit, or to preemptively improve its health. 

Caretakers of the Stephen F Austin State University’s arboretum taught me that you can typically cut back smaller perennials around the landscape by a third anytime during the growing season so long as you do not do so during time so great duress – such as in the middle of a drought.  Many blooming plants will often re-bloom wonderfully with a light topping throughout the summer. 

Mid-February is a great time to cut back roses. It is also a time to start pruning pecans and other home fruit trees, expect peaches.  Fruit trees certainly will produce larger fruit if pruned later this winter. Fruit bearing trees do have some guidelines that you would do well to follow. 

However, let us wait to prune peach trees. Pruning this fruit tree will “wake it up” and may cause it to start blooming early and risk losing a crop to frost. I will never forget the first time a commercial peach producer taught me how he waits as long as possible before pruning a peach tree. He had no qualms about pruning after the peach tree decided on its own, to start blooming.

Do not prune azaleas or other plants that bloom on last year’s growth! We wait to prune azaleas until AFTER the blooms have been enjoyed. 

So, what about pruning crepe myrtles?

I written about this multiple times so let me discuss this carefully as this topic can be contentious than religion or politics.  Crepe myrtles are beautiful plants that can be categorized as large shrubs or small trees.  Many standard varieties can reach 20 feet, 25 feet or even 30 feet tall.  If you desire a smaller variety, there are dwarf types that grow only to four feet and even miniatures that stop at one to two feet in height. I would not dare cut back the decades old crepe myrtles on our farm. I do keep the lower limbs trimmed up so we can mow under them. However, the Natchez crepe myrtles that I planted seven years ago do need shaping and kept from rubbing the eaves of our house. I do prune those but with the specific purpose of protecting the house.

Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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