Ask the Chuckster: Late winter pruning

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Ask the Chuckster: Late winter pruning

Has this been an unusual winter or what! An early cold and wet October followed by a warm November and December tricked a lot of the non-native plants into breaking dormancy in some cases. Then in January we finally got some cold weather and snow, just in time to hold some of our plants back a bit.  I suspect that we’ll have an early spring so it’s time to think about late-winter dormant pruning.

When can I start pruning?

In our area we expect to see some low 20 for nighttime lows, so early in February, we can start pruning the cold-hardy plants, such as apples, pears, Northern blueberries, elderberries, and grapes. Later in the month when we can see that sub-freezing temperatures are through for the season we can work with the more cold-sensitive plants. In the Piedmont the timing will be a little earlier. I’d jump on your winter pruning now in the Piedmont. Have your muscadines finished in the piedmont by mid February and in colder climes by the end of February.

What plants benefit most from pruning this time of year?

Winter is a good time to remove any dead, damaged, or diseased wood.  Pruning a plant while dormant will stimulate growth around the pruned area if live wood is being cut. This new growth can be excessive for fruit trees in the spring and summer if you prune too heavily in winter. For this reason, I like to do what I call “light corrective pruning” on young apple and other fruit trees this time of year to develop their architecture and keep them from getting lanky. See our great pruning videos for helpful tips. I wait until early June to summer solstice for most rehabilitative pruning and like to spread that kind of pruning over several years on older plants. The exceptions to this are…

Most vines and brambles need to be pruned this time of year to improve their production. This includes table, wine, and muscadine grapes, kiwis, raspberries, and blackberries.

Any plants you are managing as a coppice, which need to be pruned or cut in winter to optimize basal sprouting. Or plants you are managing as multiple stemmed shrubs, in which case you would remove a few of the oldest stems in winter to encourage some basal sprouting in the spring.

What about planting this time of year?

The most challenging season for most plants in this area is the hot summer. Planting early in the year provides the longest time for the plants to grow out their roots before the heat sets in.

The biggest thing to watch for when planting this time of year is soil texture. If the soil is wet, cold, and sticky, it’s better to wait a bit for the soil to dry out before planting. There is still plenty of time yet to plant dormant plants before spring so be patient. Planting in wet sticky clay will do more harm than good to new plantings. This is more of an issue for clay soils than sandy, silty, or loam soils.

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