Time to Cut Back

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

As winter approaches, the days get shorter.  As the days get shorter, we are cut back on the number of daylight hours we have to work outside.

We probably each need to consider cutting back on our work activities so that we can spend time with friends and family during the holidays.

And I start getting calls on cutting back trees and shrubs. 

In general, the dead of winter is a great time to cut back, or prune, most trees and shrubs.  They are in their dormant stage and can handle pruning quite well. 

If you are itching to start now, I’d encourage you to wait a little longer.  These last waning days of autumn still give our perennial plants time to store up reserves in their roots.  This storage of energy allows them to emerge strong in the coming spring. 

Typically, I encourage folks to wait until after the holidays have passed before you do any heavy pruning.  Heavy pruning can be defined as cutting back more than one third of a plant. 

Caretakers of the SFA arboretum taught me that you can usually cut back perennials by a third anytime during the growing season. Many blooming plants will often re-bloom wonderfully with a light topping throughout the summer. This light pruning has no detrimental effect, so long as you do not do so during time of great duress – such as in the middle of a drought.    

Winter pruning of most shrubs such as roses can be done anytime during the winter according to a regionally known horticulturalist, Felder Rushing.  In Rushing’s excellent book, Tough Plants for Southern Gardens, he says there are really no rules across the board for pruning roses.  He says to forget any specific rules you may have heard over the years and simply cut back all the stems of repeat blooming varieties by half.

Regarding landscape trees, let me first share some wisdom that I heard many years ago from renowned Dallas horticulturalist, Neil Sperry. He states, “no plant absolutely has to be pruned.”  A plant will grow naturally so long as it has water, sunlight and nutrients.

We choose to prune back trees and shrubs because a branch is in the way or because we simply desire a certain shape or enhanced fruit production. 

So, what about the crepe myrtle? I enter this discussion carefully as this is more divisive than religion or politics in some circles. 

Crepe myrtles are beautiful plants that can be categorized as large shrubs or small trees.  Many standard varieties can reach 20 feet, 25 feet or even 30 feet tall.  If you desire a smaller variety, there are dwarf types that grow only to four feet and even miniatures that stop at one to two feet in height.

That said, crepe myrtles do tolerate heavy pruning better than, perhaps, any other small tree that I know of. I’ve heard reports of residents taking a chainsaw to the trunk of a mature crepe myrtle with the perfect number of trunks and a beautiful vase shaped canopy that bloomed each summer. It lived. In its struggle to survive, it sent up several suckers that leafed out and did indeed bloom the following summer.

Fruit trees certainly will produce larger fruit if pruned later this winter. Unlike roses or other ornamental trees, fruit bearing trees do have some specific timelines and pruning guidelines that you would do well to follow.  Fruit owners can study up on pruning techniques at several places, including my favorite gardening page: aggie-horticluture.tamu.edu. 

Peach trees are prime examples of how a specific technique can yield an abundance of quality fruit.  I’ll never forget the first time a commercial peach producer showed me how many lateral limbs he wanted, then how many buds he would allow per limb.  His efforts were quite laborious and profited him greatly. 

So, enjoy the upcoming holidays.  Cut back on work and enjoy the seasons that will be upon us soon.  And give yourself (as well as your landscape) a little time yet before you break out the loppers and pruning shears. 

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