Late Winter Pruning

The Great Storm

A few years ago, we had the oddest, and as it turned out, most disastrous, April ice storm. First it rained like the dickens for a day. Then the temperature dropped, and the rain changed to heavy, wet snow of which we proceeded to get about a foot. When it was all said and done, our city looked like a war zone.

Massive branches, limbs, and even whole trees were strewn everywhere. Streets were impassable, city parks a disaster. Our town came to a complete standstill. Not only could people not actually drive anywhere. It was not safe to do so because ice and snow-laden limbs continued to fall, even after the storm had moved on. Our city called on tree trimming crews from all over the upper Midwest to help clean up and restore order. This ended up taking weeks.

Lessons Learned

A few months later, I was in a lecture listening to Dr. John Ball, South Dakota’s very own brilliant and always entertaining Department of Agriculture forest health specialist and SDSU professor of agronomy. As he discussed the storm, he laid out for us how a properly pruned tree or bush makes for a healthy tree or bush. This health better enables the trees to withstand that which nature throws against it.

Later as we walked through the grounds that surrounded the lecture hall, Dr. Ball pointed out dozens of examples of negligent pruning. Trees that were allowed to be misshapen, creating rotten junctions between limb and trunk, were susceptible to breaking apart in the next big wind or ice storm. And then there were open wounds where branches had rubbed together. Said open wounds are places where harmful insects and diseases can enter the tree, set up shop, and start wreaking havoc.

Dr. Ball taught me the importance of pruning your trees. Start creating the correct shape when the tree is young and the branches are small, so the healing will be quick. And do it during the right time of year.

When is the Right Time to Prune?

Early March, or “late dormant season, is the best for most pruning.” So advises the University of Minnesota Extension tree specialists. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that the tree will soon wake up for spring, allowing the tree to heal itself much faster. Another reason is that the harmful insects are not yet awake and moving around, enabling the trees and bushes to heal before they are. A third reason is without the leaves to block one’s view of the tree’s structure, clearer decisions can be made about which branches to take and which to leave.

So, who should be doing all this pruning? I am of the full belief that the trimming of medium and large trees should be done by a certified arborist. They have both the expertise and equipment to do this job safely and properly. That said, bushes, shrubs, and small trees can all be done by you, the homeowner. Most state extension offices have very helpful tutorials on how each plant needs to be trimmed. I am also available to guide you through this process.

Caring for our Trees

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An example of an obvious branch to prune on a young apple tree.

Trees, bushes, and shrubs are anchors in our properties. They can be a large financial investment, and once planted they last decades. We carefully choose. Are they a fruit tree or a shade tree? Do we want to use their branches for a swing or a birdhouse? Whatever their purpose, they offer a pivotal contribution to creating a beautiful landscape for our homes. They give us so much, and they deserve to be cared for.

So get outside and get your trees and bushes all pruned. This summer on a sweltering August afternoon, when you are enjoying the cool shade of your beautifully trimmed oak tree or admiring your rose bush in full bloom, you will thank yourself!

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