Winter Pruning Series
While my fellow San Francisco Bay Area residents are gearing up for winter (and celebrating another World Series victory by the SF Giants!), my husband and I are gearing up for pruning season. Like pest and disease control, pruning is an extensive topic, overwhelming in detail and specifics, so I will not be able to explain everything quickly, which is why I am introducing another series– pruning practices. One of my pet peeves is poor pruning, so I hope that my knowledge can make a positive impact on the home gardener, and turn around bad habits in the garden that can lead to pests, diseases, and an ugly mess.
As always, if you submit a question in the comments section, I will be sure to respond with the appropriate garden advice, and if you need one-on-one instruction or hands-on garden training, my husband and I are available for hire as your personal garden coach team.
Winter Pruning Overview
As the days grow colder, and darkness beckons earlier and earlier, most of our Bay Area plants sense the signaling change and decide to go to sleep for the winter. The hibernation begins as early as late fall, whereas some plants don’t begin to go dormant until winter is fully upon us. The main pruning season is November through January in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since we have such nice weather, and the days fluctuate between hot and sunny, clear and cold, warm and overcast, biting winds and rain, even the occasional freeze, our poor plants get confused! Our plants have no idea whether to go to sleep, or wake up, keep blooming or drop their leaves. Sometimes you need to give them direction and assistance by forcing them into dormancy, and then giving them a gentle meal to help them wake back up in the spring.
Spring may be the best time to clean out your house, but the winter is all about cleaning out the garden. This is the perfect time to reduce overgrown hedges, cut back unruly, leggy perennials, and give shape to wild or heavy trees. Pruning is the perfect garden activity to keep us busy in that slow season when the plants aren’t growing; something to do between picking up the fall leaves and pulling the excited winter weeds, exuberant from the nitrogen-rich rains.
Pruning is a necessary activity to keep your garden healthy and safe. The obvious reason to prune is to reduce the overall size of plants, shrubs, vines, and trees and rein some control over your garden. The more subtle reason is to prevent diseases from spreading and pest infestations. By keeping plants open and airy, pests have no shelter to congregate, and mold, mildew, and fungus don’t have a dark, dank place to grow. By removing diseased tree branches, you can prevent the spread of the disease. By removing dead tree branches, pests don’t have a place to move in and populate. By removing branches that have poor form or weak connections, you keep your garden a safer place– said branches don’t have the opportunity to fall in your garden or on you, your pets, or your family when a gust of wind blows through. Also, if a branch does fall as opposed to being neatly removed, there could be a large tear in your tree that will compromise the health of the tree– tears are another entry point for pests and diseases.
There are a number of plants that should not be pruned in the winter, and the rule of thumb on those are the ones that are in bloom that season. The most common winter bloomers in the San Francisco Bay Area are: Camellias, Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Pieres, Hellebores, Citrus trees, and most succulents. These plants should be pruned in the summer instead, before they set their winter buds. With that short list out of the way, you can see just how busy you will be this winter in the garden (unless your garden is comprised of a Camellia pygmy forest!)
The plants and trees that you should focus on will be the perennials, shrubs (especially the ones that drop their leaves, such as roses and hydrangeas), vines, and deciduous trees, especially Maples and fruiting trees, that rely on annual pruning for shape and fruit production, respectively.
In the mean time, while you are waiting to winter prune your garden, it’s time to sow seeds for your winter vegetable garden! Come back next week for my article on which vegies and herbs do great during our cool, dark and rainy winters.