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And, sometimes timing our pruning can be difficult. In my own garden, today the weather is perfect for winter pruning. Temperatures are above freezing and no precipitation is falling. However, in many other parts of the country, gardeners can’t see their shrubs for all the snow and ice still pummeling their landscapes. So, while I encourage my local gardening compatriots to get out and begin their winter pruning shortly, I suggest that those of you blanketed in the white stuff sit tight. Your winter bloomers may still be holding tight to their buds, so you’ve got time. But as soon as you can get out there and start working, do it!
The general rule of thumb for pruning winter blooming plants is to prune them as they come into flower or just after they finish blooming. By pruning them while they’re flowering, gardeners are rewarded with blossom-filled stems – often quite fragrant – to bring indoor for bouquets. Plus, if the bloomer happens to be a deciduous shrub or tree, the main structure of the plant is easily apparent while the plant is devoid of foliage. Shrubs like Witch Hazel, Dawn Viburnum, Winter Currant, and Cornelian Cherry provide beautiful blooming stems for wintery Ikebana arrangements. Even if your shrub is an evergreen, like Sarcococca or Garrya elliptica or Camellia sasanqua, making your cuts early is imperative to ensure future blossoms.
Understanding the growth cycle for winter blooming plants helps shed light on why we prune them when we do. These plants open their flowers sometime in the winter months. Then Spring begins, and they rapidly begin to put on new green growth, mature any fruit and start forming flowers that will bloom the following winter. Because they bloom so early in the year, they must form flower buds for the coming winter early in the preceding spring. This allows them to mature the buds and harden them off to protect them from the harshness of winter. So, prune them just before they begin the process of setting up new flower buds for the coming year; if we wait until summer or autumn to prune them, we will end up cutting off all the blooms we so desperately crave in winter. Note: if you wish to harvest edible fruit from a winter bloomer like Cornelian Cherry, take care not to remove every pollinated flowering branch or you’ll go without fruit later in the year.
If you’re ready to get out and begin pruning your winter bloomers, keep in mind it is best to prune when the soil and branches aren’t frozen. Stomping on frozen soil can spoil our soil structure and damage roots. Cutting frozen branches can result in bad breaks and tears that may irreparably wound the plant. Ideally, look for a day – even a rainy one if you aren’t working on ladders – when temperatures are above freezing and before the plants have fully leafed out for spring. When one of these cherished windows on spring opens for you, assess your winter gardening needs, grab your best pair of sterilized bypass pruners, a tarp to spread at the base of your work area to make clean up easy, and your favorite handsaw, and get those winter bloomers shaped up. If you wait, it’ll be too late!