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Winter Pruning

Person Wearing Gray Gloves Holding Tree Branch Covered with Snow
Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

In the dead of winter, so many trees look skeletal – bare branches with dead leaves on the ground surrounding them. Even here in the desert southwest, you can see leafless limbs. In other parts of the country, this would mean it’s time to stay indoors, sipping mulled wine and browsing through seed catalogs. We do that here, too, but we don’t necessarily have to stay inside. In fact, since our coldest average temperatures are about 50 degrees during the day, the winter’s an ideal time to clean up our landscapes. I have family and friends back east who’d be dancing in shorts and t-shirts if it were 50 degrees anytime between December and February.   

So, we don’t need to sit huddled indoors. In fact, over the winter, we don’t have all those leaves interfering with our view. That way, we can actually see the shape of the big plants in the garden, and groom them, if they need it.  

Yes, winter is the time to do any serious pruning of trees, shrubs, even vines. Things may look dead, but they’re resting. All the green that was in the leaves gets broken down and the products are moved into the parts of the plants that are still standing. Nothing’s wasted; that material gives the plants a head start for growth when environmental conditions become more hospitable. And you know that we do have terrific growing conditions for much of the year. Also, those dead leaves can serve as a mulch, modifying soil temperatures and even cutting down on weeds later.

When you look at the overall form of the various bushes in a garden, you can see that they’re generally round. Not the ugly green meatballs that people carve out of their shrubs, but rather, a smooth flowing shape. That’s the way they grow when they’re healthiest. Those natural shapes are also the easiest to maintain. When somebody scalps these plants into rigid spheres, or worse yet, gives them crew cuts, maintenance is a real nuisance. New growth sticks out like cowlicks, which is nature’s way of telling us not to impose rigid shapes on our shrubbery. The best pruning results in a plant that looks like nothing’s been done at all, except that it’s a bit smaller.

With trees, the type of tree you’re growing determines how to prune it. Unless it has broken or crossed limbs, why bother pruning a shade tree? Assuming that it’s not too big for the garden. When a tree outgrows its location, that means it probably wasn’t a terrific selection in the first place. Trying to keep a big tree at a manageable size can be a huge time consumer.

Whenever you’re installing a tree, remember - it’s going to grow, both above and below ground. Always think about mature height, which can be a surprise.

For instance, I planted a desert willow, Chilopsis linearis, in my side yard. When you think of a desert tree, you expect it to be small. According to Trees for Tomorrow, a very handy little publication, desert willow can grow 25 feet tall and even wider.

I figured that would be under ideal conditions, but no. I never provide ideal conditions and that tree’s close to 25 feet tall in less than a decade.  Beautiful tree, but maybe too much of a good thing.

Fruit trees are a different story. Here, annual pruning keeps them bearing produce that you can harvest without climbing up and down ladders. Fruits like peaches and apricots do best if the sun can reach into the center of the tree’s canopy. I believe that here in the desert southwest, we can grow some of the sweetest, most succulent fruit you’d find anywhere.

You can find a great range of information on proper pruning of garden plants, both edible and ornamental. At Extension, we have online publications – on cacti and succulents, fruit trees, even roses. If you can get to the Extension Research center up in North Las Vegas, you can speak with Master Gardeners who’ll be happy to talk with you about pruning all manner of fruits – from apricots to jujubes to grapes. At the office down in Green Valley, expert rosarians can answer almost any rose question.

Remember, your garden is your kingdom, and taking advantage of the winter means that your kingdom’ll be even more impressive come spring.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Extension. Enjoy the winter!