Shape-shifting: A Guide to Winter Pruning

Winter is the time of year we tend to enjoy the warmth of staying indoors instead of the cold rainy days outside. However, there are many jobs that still need to be done in the garden and one of the most important is winter pruning. Pruning the bare branches of fruiting trees, ornamental trees and roses in the cold days of winter will encourage them to flourish with flowers and an abundance of fruit in the spring, summer and autumn.

Fruit trees
It is important in the first few years while establishing fruit trees to focus on developing a strong framework. This is achieved by using different pruning techniques and shaping the tree as it develops over a period of time. One of the biggest mistakes when growing fruit trees is having the mindset of snatching a quick harvest. When pruning is neglected in the first few years of a tree’s establishment, the tree will usually develop weak branches and will not produce a good overall shape. When these weak branches produce fruit they are likely to break due to the weight of the crop. Nurturing fruit trees early in their establishment allows for strong, healthy branches that will support the weight of the fruit produced and will encourage a strong, healthy branching framework. It is also important to know when to prune different species of fruiting trees, as they can vary, however most deciduous trees will tolerate a winter prune.

How to create the framework of a fruiting tree
Creating a good framework encourages air circulation throughout the tree, which will help eliminate pest, diseases and fungal problems throughout the year. In most situations the desired shape is keeping the centre of the tree free from crossing branches and aiming to mimic the shape of a vase. This not only allows for improved air circulation, but encourages sunlight in through the tree to help ripen fruit that would have been shaded.

In the first few years your fruit trees will be developing their branches. During this period, shorten or remove unwanted branches that cross over or intersect other stems. Remove any dead, diseased or damaged stems to allow for new healthy growth. The remaining branches should then be pruned to encourage the direction of new and future growth. When pruning the remaining branches, choose a strong bud that faces away from the centre of the tree (called an outward-facing bud). Cutting to an outward-facing bud will encourage new branches to form away from the tree’s centre and will help discourage main branches from physically touching.

Ensure a clean cut. copy

Make a clean cut to avoid disease in your plant.

When making a cut, position your secateurs just above the bud and angle the cut to the same angle as the bud. By doing this you will be encouraging water to run off the stem away from the bud. This will help avoid bud rot and stem die-back because water will not be sitting static on top of the cut point. Ensure secateurs are sharp and clean, as unclean cuts can lead to infection points for fungus, viruses and diseases.

Avoid cutting to an inward-facing bud, which is a bud that points to the centre of the tree. If you were to prune to an inward-facing bud, future branches will grow through the centre of the tree and result in a poor framework and overcrowding of branches. A little tip I like to teach people when they are unsure of the direction of a future stem is that the buds are like little arrows; the very tip of the bud is the pointer and the direction the bud is facing usually indicates the direction the future stems will form and grow.

Fruit trees that traditionally grow to a mature height of 4m (13 feet) or more are best maintained to a manageable and desired height. This makes for an easier harvest and allows for a healthier fruit tree with strong growth, good framework and a mass of fruit in years to come.

Ornamental trees
Ornamental trees continue to be one of the major features in almost every garden and landscape design, but they can also be a challenge because of their height and width. However, for the smaller garden there are plenty of dwarf varieties becoming readily available. Many ornamental trees can be customised to an extent to suit a space by pruning branches to encourage growth in the desired direction and shape. Pruning ornamental trees for a few years will produce a well-balanced and shaped specimen, resulting in a more appealing feature for the garden.

The techniques for pruning your flowering ornamental trees are very similar to those of a fruiting tree, however you do not need to be as concerned if the branches intercept and crossover. A good example of an ornamental tree that can be pruned and shaped is a weeping tree. In the first few years it is important to prune weeping trees to create a strong and thick framework (weeping Japanese maples can be excluded from this because they are best left to grow in their natural shape).

Encourage strong growth by removing buds from the trunk.

How to create the framework of an
ornamental tree
It is important to prune weeping trees for the first few years as this will result in many benefits and help to establish a stronger and healthier tree. In the early stages of the tree’s establishment it is important to keep the trunk free from any branching that may occur along it. Make sure to prune off any shoots that are forming (if they are young, soft shoots you should be able to just rub them off). Weeping trees vary in their natural growth habit and will require slightly different pruning techniques. In the first two to three years the branches will need to be pruned hard to achieve the desired umbrella shape. Pruning the branches back by a third will establish a strong healthy crown (the graft point of the weeping tree) and will encourage masses of flowers down the track.

Pictured below is an example of how to prune a weeping cherry tree. For a tree like this one, remove any branches that are growing straight down to the ground and focus on training the remaining branches to have an arching habit of an umbrella. Remove upward-growing branches to maintain the shape and height of your tree. This will help create the desired shape and keep the space under the remaining branches clear from overcrowding.

Cherry Tree (2) before copy

Cherry Tree (1) after copy

Just like a fruiting tree, the cuts need to be clean to help reduce the chances of viral and fungus infections, so it is important to cut to the correct bud point. When making a cut, prune to an upward-facing bud (a bud that is on the upper side of a branch facing away from the ground). If a cut was made to a bud that faces down towards the ground, the future branch would be looping back through the centre of the tree, which is what we do not want to encourage.

Roses are a favourite plant among many gardeners; they are loved for their ability to adapt to many different gardens, soil types and weather conditions. The beautiful blooms create a vast range of moods in any garden, from a romantic cottage garden to a luxury formal garden. They range in heights and habits, coming in many different forms such as climbers that grow multiple meters high, through to bushes that grow to an average height of 1.5m, and then to sprawling groundcover forms. Pruning will promote strong, well-balanced branches and create that very important desired framework. The aim of pruning is to encourage healthy new growth in the spring and lavish clusters of flowers throughout the growing season.

How to create the framework of a rose
If you have always wondered how to get your roses to flower repetitively and become lush, compact shrubs, here is the secret; it’s all about winter pruning and good fertilising. The main time to prune roses is when they fall dormant during the cooler months, once all the foliage has dropped. Just like our fruiting and ornamental trees, the first few years of a rose’s establishment is the most important time to prune. Pruning roses is mainly devoted to encouraging finer and more lavish blooms, however in the beginning it is very important to build the framework and shape for future growth. The desired shape is similar to a vase, which means keeping the centre of the plant free from intercepting braches. This will help reduce pest and fungal problems such as blackspot and mildew in the growing seasons. See images below for before and after pruning a rose.

For the first two years the stems will need to be pruned hard to promote stronger branches and side branches. Any stems affected by dieback can be cut back to healthy green wood, but if the stem is completely dead, remove it to stop the spread of the disease. When positioning your secateurs to make a cut, use the same techniques that have been explained when pruning fruiting trees. It is important to cut to an outward-facing bud to encourage the desired direction of future growth.

Rose before copyRose after copy

Images: Bonnie-Marie Hibbs

About the Author – Bonnie-Marie Hibbs
Bonnie-Marie is a qualified horticulturalist and seedling manager at Gardenworld in Victoria, and has also recently begun presenting on The Garden Gurus. She has appeared on 3AW radio and writes a blog ‘The Gardener’s Notebook‘ to inspire and share knowledge.

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