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  • Waterwise Gardening | David Salman

The Kindest Cut: Pruning in the Winter Part 2

Winter is the best time to prune—especially if some of your trees have gone a few years without being pruned and will require that a lot of wood be removed. When plants are dormant, they are better able to cope with the removal of a lot of branches, as may be needed when properly shaping and thinning out a tree or large-growing shrub.

For most of Santa Fe County, the pruning season begins in late December and extends through the end of February or into mid-March. Plant dormancy is affected by temperatures; a mild winter brings them out of dormancy earlier. A cold, snowy winter extends dormancy. With luck, this year we’ll have a long pruning season!

What to Prune

Shade trees, flowering trees, fruit trees, grapes, Butterfly Bush (but not the spring blooming Buddleia alternifolia), flowering vines (except Wisteria which should be pruned after blooming).

What Not to Prune

Spring flowering shrubs like Lilacs, Snowball Bush (Viburnum), white flowered spirea, mahonia, mock orange (Philadelphus), flowering almond,roses and other shrubs that flower in April and May should be pruned after they finish blooming. June is the best time to prune these spring bloomers. Wait until early May to prune roses. They will be in leaf and actively growing, but that’s OK for roses.

Pruning Evergreens

Evergreen trees (pines, spruces, fir and other conifers) have their own pruning methods that are, in part, different from typical deciduous trees and shrubs. Like deciduous trees/shrubs, we prune evergreen trees in winter/early spring to get rid of crossed interior branching (thinning) and to shape the tree if starts to grow in a distorted way. But differently from deciduous trees/shrubs, But pruning evergreens to control their height is done differently than deciduous trees and shrubs. To keep evergreens more compact and densely branched, we do so by cutting/snapping off the tops sections of the candles (see photo below).

Pruning to Thin and Shape Evergreens

This is best done during the winter months if the thinning of interior branches is extensive. Removing just a few can be done during the spring and summer months as well.

Pruning to control height and thicken lanky growth of Evergreens

This pruning is done during a very specific time of the spring, when the new growth resembles asparagus shoots and the needles have not elongated. These are called “candles.” To limit the height and/or increase the density of the branching, we pinch the candles back by ½ their length. They are very soft and can be snapped off with your fingers or clipped off with some pruning shears. The tip of each branch typically has a central candle and whorl of shorter candles below it. As you prune, always make sure the top candle is tallest and that the candles below it are only about half the height of the lead candle. Mugo pines are a prime example of an evergreen that should have its candles trimmed each spring to keep them bushy and not too tall.

Don’t delay your pruning until the needles grow to their full length, because woody new growth may not re-branch very well from beneath the cut.


These can be pruned or sheared during winter dormancy or during the growing season. But remember, if you shear or cut back the juniper to brown wood, it won’t re-grow new green shoots. Be sure there is green growth below your cut to keep that branch actively growing.

Some General Pruning Comments

Pruning paint / pruning sealer – don’t use it. Leave cuts open to the air so they can heal properly. Covering a cut with a water proof pruning sealer or paint will trap moisture and possibly cause fungal or bacterial disease.

How to Remove a Large Branch

1) Make the first cut a few inches out from the trunk in an upward direction from the bottom of the branch. Just cut a little bit into the branch, not all the way through it. This will prevent the falling branch from ripping the bark.

2) Make the second cut out about 1 to 2 feet from the trunk or large branch to which it’s attached. Cut in a downward direction.

3) Make the final cut close to the trunk, to remove the extra bit you left in Step 2. Be careful not to cut into the swollen “collar” at the branch’s point of attachment.

The New Mexico State University has published numerous publications through the Agricultural Extension Service. Here are a couple (of many) publications on the subject.

Text and Photos By David Salman © All articles are copyrighted by WATERWISE Gardening, LLC. Republication is prohibited without permission

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