Winter Pruning

Traditionally farmers pruned their apple trees in late winter, but there is no reason not to do so now. Trees are dormant, and we’ve finished weeding and raking, so most of us should have time to work on our trees. Pick a sunny afternoon and get to work! Later, when the snow is deep, it won’t be so easy to prune.


Start by walking around the tree and looking at it from all angles. One of my goals in pruning is to create living sculpture, a tree with grace and elegance. A cluttered tree is never elegant to my eye. A bird should be able to fly through an apple tree – without danger of injury.


Branch Collar and Line to Show Where to Cut

Branch Collar and Line to Show Where to Cut

Hesitant pruners often begin by nibbling away at a tree, taking dozens of small twigs and branches. I’m a bold pruner. I was taught that taking off big branches is better than tentatively snipping away at a tree. You want to open up the interior of the tree so that sunshine can get to every leaf. This creates a healthy tree. Do this by taking out the big branches if they are crowding others. More on that later.


But first, begin by looking for branches that are dead and removing them. They are doing no good for the tree and never will. If you scrape off a little bark, a live branch will show a green layer. Dead branches will only show brown. Cut the dead branch back to where it originates, but leave the branch collar.


Stub Healing Back to Branch Collar

Stub Healing Back t o Branch Collar

The branch collar is a swollen area on the trunk of a tree or a larger branch where a new branch originates. The bark is often wrinkled at the collar. You don’t want to leave a stub when you remove a branch, nor do you want to cut flush to the trunk. Just leave that collar, as that is where the tree heals itself.


Low branches are the bane of many people who mow lawns. So take a look at any trees with lawn underneath, and see if you could remove a couple of low branches and make life easier. Some trees tend to shed lower branches, but most do not. Cut low branches back to the branch collar on the trunk, allowing space for you and your mower to cut the grass with ease.


Often trees, especially wild trees, grow too close to their neighbors. A single root system sometimes sends up 2 to 4 stems in close proximity. Cut out one or more to leave a single trunk. At this time of year I leave first year root suckers – those pencil thin shoots surrounding the base of apple and crabapple trees –and remove them in the spring.


So what else can you remove? Look for branches that are rubbing, crossing or growing parallel to others. Trees really are of very low intelligence. They grow branches that have no chance of growing to their full potential. They run into each other, or crowd others out. Your job is to train them to behave – with a saw! Ask yourself what a branch will be like in 5 years. If it will crowd another branch, remove it – or the other one.


Corona Pruning Saw

Corona Pruning Saw

Using the appropriate saw is important. Don’t use that rusty old bow saw that you bought 25 years ago when Sammy was a Boy Scout. Go to your local garden center or family-owned hardware store and get a tri-cut pruning saw. These saws are sharp! You can’t sharpen them, but that doesn’t matter. The steel is so tough they will be sharp long after you have stopped pruning.


Get something with a blade a foot long or more so you can cut large branches. Small folding saw are okay for many cuts, but my favorite is a long curved saw made by Corona. It has a 21-inch blade and the big teeth with gaps to remove sawdust and prevent it from clogging up and binding the saw. It’s model RS 7160 and is available from OESCOINC in Conway, MA for about $47; I have the sheath for it, which costs another $35, but really is needed for a saw with teeth that could hurt you when carrying it. It’s my alternative to a chain saw for large branches.


If you are removing a heavy branch, you need to make 3 cuts, not one, so that the branch doesn’t break off while you’re cutting it, causing the bark to rip off, thus damaging the trunk. Make an undercut about a third of the way through the branch a foot or more from the trunk. Then go farther out the branch and lop off the bulk of the branch, reducing its weight. The undercut will stop any tearing of the bark. Finally cut off the stub at the branch collar.


The nice thing about pruning is that there are few serious mistakes to make. Yes, you can “oops!” a branch, but the tree will fill in spaces in a year or two. Branches are not like our arms or legs. Pruning is more like giving a tree a haircut. And if you think of pruning as sculpting, you will want to do it every year.


Henry posts his weekly articles and others at You can sign up for an email alert each time he posts. Contact Henry at or by mail at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. I you want a mailed response, please include a self-addressed stamped envelope.


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