GARDENING: Fall/winter pruning of trees and shrubs |

GARDENING: Fall/winter pruning of trees and shrubs

Curt Swift
Free Press Gardening Columnist
Note the broken branch high up in tree. It is recommended to have an arborist come out and safely cut it down before it lands on someone or something.
Curt Swift |

Fall and winter are great times to prune out any dead wood you might have in your trees and shrubs. At this time of year, a well-trained arborist will be able to identify those branches that need to be removed even from large trees simply by looking at the condition of the branches, the bark on the branches, and the presence or absence of buds.

Hanging branches, those that have broken free, as well as those that are broken but still attached can be seen in many trees throughout the Grand Valley. Hanging branches may have broke off earlier in the season and still have their leaves attached. These branches should have fallen to the ground but are being held up by other branches. The size of some of these branches can be quite hazardous when they fall. Many are in the tops of trees well above what you or I can reach from the ground. Therefore it will take a Hi-Ranger to reach up 30, 40 or even 50 feet to pull them down.

Broken branches that are still attached to the branch are often obvious from the angle at which they hang. These branches can be high up in the tree and need a professional with the equipment to reach them. Branches with strips of bark missing, while lacking the buds necessary for next year’s growth are going to break off and fall so why not get them removed this winter when the arborist can get around the tree without dealing with the new growth and leaves. Waiting until next year after the leaves emerge to have these problems in your trees corrected can be more costly.

Imagine what might happen when these broken branches fall. They can cause personal injury or damage to vehicles and items stored under the tree. There are trees I avoid parking under due to the broken branches and “hangers” protruding over the street. I would encourage anyone parking on the street to do the same. It only takes a few seconds to look up through your windshield to see if a problem waiting to happen exists above where you plan on parking.


If you have a shrub that is in dire need of pruning due to dead stems or there are too many stems that prevent air movement through the shrub, now is as good as any time to get those problems taken care of. Lilacs and other multi-stem shrubs, in other words those shrubs where shoots come from below ground, need to be rejuvenated every three to four years to thin the shrub. This is done by removing the largest stems as close to the ground as possible. Removing a third of those will give your lilac greater health in the future. I would recommend stems you remove which are alive be cut off no closer than six inches to the ground. Cutting closer can result in freeze injury down into the root system causing problems for next year. The 6-inch stub should be removed after the spring freezes. Single-stem shrubs, those that have one main stem coming from below ground, can be pruned to remove dead branches. Remember to leave a stub and remember to remove the stub next spring.

Shearing is another form of pruning used to shape shrubs. I always advise against shaping/shearing shrubs, whether evergreen or deciduous, in late fall or winter. Those of you with hedge trimmers should delay using this tool until warm weather returns in 2014. Shearing the top of a shrub to make it took nice opens a wound. When shearing is done in late fall or winter, the cut cannot callus over and the open wound allows the neighboring living tissue to dry and die. Every spring I see juniper shrubs, forsythia, bridal wreath spirea, and other shrubs with 1 to 2 inches of dead shoot tips. This is most often due to late fall or winter shearing. To get the shrubs back into proper shape and appearance, owners shear these shrubs in the spring to remove these dead tips. If you feel the need to shape your shrubs, it should be done just before a flush of growth. Junipers typically have two flushes of growth, one in the spring and the other in early summer. These shrubs should be pruned just before those flushes.

Pruning (shearing) deciduous shrubs too late in the summer causes problems for these plants because they have already started to acclimate for winter. Pruning stimulates growth and if the tissue cannot get ready in time for winter, it is killed by cold weather. There are professional arborists in the Grand Valley who do an outstanding job pruning trees and shrubs. I would suggest you give them a call and have them check out your trees and shrubs to determine if they need pruning. They should also be able to identify any major problems the trees have that need to be taken care of. Rot around the base of the tree, or a canker running up the trunk are problems which an arborist should be able to identify and hopefully correct. If you want me to make a house call to check out your trees and shrubs, get in touch by calling 970-778-7866.

Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the Colorado State University Extension. Reach him at, 970-778-7866 or check out his blog at He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.

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