Roots and Shoots: Go Find Your Shears

Pruning now will bring spring and summer results

By Pamela Doan

My blueberry bushes are getting a deep, reinvigorating cutback this February. In previous winters, I miss the moment for pruning because the snow pack has been too high to get to them, much less wield pruning shears without slipping and stabbing myself. Blueberries should be pruned annually to maintain healthy growth and production.

Blueberry yields decline over time, as the plant gets taller. The tall canes block light and it will only bear fruit on the exterior, as well as expending more energy into leafing. I can take out any canes more than one-inch in diameter, any that are damaged or rubbing against another, up to 20 percent of the bush.

Here are some other guidelines for late winter pruning:

Reasons to prune

Taking branches off a woody plant or tree can stimulate new growth, improve blooming and increase fruit production. Pruning can be done to remove diseased sections and save a planting that might be lost otherwise. It’s also an aesthetic choice and can be done to shape or control growth.

An early sign of spring: daffodil shoots. (Photo by P. Doan) 

An early sign of spring: daffodil shoots. (Photo by P. Doan)

Removing suckers (shoots coming out from the base of the tree) focuses the tree’s growth on production and thinning out branches improves air circulation.

Damaged branches should be cut to prevent injury or property damage. Be wary of tackling any job near power lines; leave that to pros. It’s also fine to call for help with high branches and let someone with the proper equipment assist. I’ve been up on a ladder with an extended pruning saw working away when the branch came down more closely than I expected and it’s not fun.

What to prune in winter

Summer blooming shrubs like Rose of Sharon, hydrangea that bloom in new wood, ornamental grasses, clematis, shrub roses, and fruit and berry producers like apple, crabapple and blueberries.

What not to prune now

Spring blooming woody plants like lilacs, forsythia, azalea, rhododendron. Although it won’t harm the plant, the buds have already been set and pruning will affect the flowers. If you want full blooming, wait until the flowers are finished.

In general, spruce and fir trees don’t need pruning.

Trees like maples that have sap will ooze from the cut if pruned before they leaf out and should be left alone for now.

Does a warm winter change the rules?

January was the warmest recorded in weather-tracking history and this month has been a roller-coaster as well, with plummeting and rocketing temperatures day to day. I wondered if that had an impact on dormancy for winter pruning. “Plants like spice bush and witch hazel may already be growing at this point and that’s not a problem,” said Jennifer Stengle, the resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension. “It’s fine to prune when plants are actively growing; they heal well and perhaps faster,” meaning less opportunity for disease attack.

Learning opportunities

The Native Plant Center conference “Inspired by Nature: Designing with Native Plants” is coming up on March 14 and registration is open. I’ve attended their spring conference for several years now and they gather some of the most interesting experts doing critical research and education about ecosystem challenges.

This year’s conference at the center, which is located on the campus of Westchester Community College in Valhalla, will feature four speakers who will discuss how to create sustainable habitats in home gardens and one section devoted to a topic that every gardener can relate to: coping with deer. Larry Weaner, who I interviewed in August 2014 about “self-perpetuating landscapes,” will also be presenting. His landscapes focus on using a plant’s natural proclivity to spread and colonize as an advantage. You’ll find details at

Both Stonecrop Garden in Cold Spring ( and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Putnam County ( have announced classes on vegetable gardens in March and April, just in time for spring planting. The cooperative’s Master Gardeners will offer other classes on a range of topics over the next few months, including a Spring Garden School on April 2 at the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison that will cover pollinator-friendly gardening and alternative pest management strategies.

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