Prune now for roses later.

Roses should be pruned before the end of winter. Here where winters are so mild, they can get pruned early.

Just like most of the modern fruit trees that were bred over the past few centuries to produce unnaturally large and abundant fruit, almost all modern roses have been bred for unnaturally large flowers. Production of such large flowers takes quite a bit of work. An excess of these large flowers is more than overgrown rose plants can keep up with. This is why roses should be pruned so aggressively while dormant in winter.

Pruning should be done before buds start to swell at the end of winter. Some people prefer to wait until the end of February. However, because winters are so mild here, buds are already starting to swell, and some are even beginning to grow. I actually prefer to prune early, as soon as roses are dormant and most of the foliage falls off easily when disturbed.

The objective of pruning is to remove as much superfluous growth as possible, in order to concentrate growth into fewer but more productive stems and flowers. Without pruning, roses naturally develop into rampant thickets of abundant but less productive stems. It is also good horticultural hygiene to remove all foliage from last year, since that is where fungal and bacterial pathogens overwinter. Leaves should be plucked from stems and raked from the ground.

Hybrid tea roses get pruned severely so that there are only three to six canes about two feet high. Healthy canes that grew from the base last year are the best. They should have fresh green bark, and preferably lack branches below where they get pruned. Older canes that are developing striations (rough bark texture) should be pruned out. Most floribunda roses can get pruned almost as severely, so that they have only five to a dozen canes.

Some grandiflora roses are allowed to get significantly taller. They develop most new canes on top of canes that were pruned during the previous winter, instead of from the base. Consequently, some stems can get quite old and tall before new basal canes develop to replace them. Climbing roses are likewise pruned less aggressively, since new canes grow from old canes.

Like most fruit trees, most roses are grafted. Therefore, ‘suckers’ (shoots from below graft unions) must be removed. Tree roses should not be pruned below the graft unions on top of their main trunks. Most carpet roses are not grafted, so do not develop suckers; but then, they do not require such specialized and aggressive pruning either.

Pollarding Pruning Techniques Remain Controversial

Pollarding is pruning to the extreme.

Olive orchards formerly inhabited some of the regions that became urban in California. A few orchard trees remained within urban gardens of the homes that encroached on them. Unfortunately, for those who did not utilize the abundant olives, these trees were horridly messy. Many decades ago, pollarding eliminated the mess without eliminating the trees.

Pollarding is extreme pruning that eliminates all but the main trunk and a few main limbs. It deprives olive trees of their ability to bloom, by eliminating stems of a previous season that would otherwise bloom during the next season. Fruit can not develop without bloom. For other trees that bloom only on older stems, pollarding eliminates bothersome pollen.

Pollarding has several other practical applications. It confines trees that would otherwise get too big for their respective situations. It enhances foliar color and texture for trees that display colorful foliage through summer, such as Schwedler and Princeton Gold maples. Red twig dogwood generates more colorful twigs, and more abundantly, after pollarding.

For agricultural purposes, pollarding generates lush vegetative growth of white mulberry to sustain silkworms, or other vegetation for livestock. It similarly generates long and thin willow stems for basketry. Various eucalypti rely on pollarding to produce juvenile foliage that is colorful and healthy enough for floral design, or aromatic enough for essential oils. 

Nowadays, pollarding is unfortunately passe and even vilified. Consequently, almost no arborists learn about it. Because it is technically disfiguring and potentially unsightly, it is undesirable for many situations. Annual repetition is needed to prevent bloom or fruiting. Otherwise, restorative pruning or more extreme pollarding eventually become necessary. 

For pollarding, proper technique is imperative. Such severe pruning must happen during winter dormancy. It would it be too stressful during vascular activity. Besides, bark would be very susceptible to scald if so suddenly exposed during warmer and sunnier weather. Pruning cuts must be very neat, and back to any old pollard cuts, without stubs to inhibit healing.

Dormancy And Defoliation Are Advantageous

Hostas go dormant and defoliate for winter, and regenerate for spring.

Many plants are deciduous in autumn and winter, which means that they defoliate or die back, and then refoliate or regenerate in spring. Many others are evergreen, which simply means that they are always foliated through all seasons. What many people do not realize is that evergreen plants replace their foliage just like deciduous plants do. They just do not do it in such distinct phases of defoliation, dormancy and refoliation.

Tropical plants like cannas and some of the various begonias really have no need for formal defoliation, since they are from climates that lack winter. In the wild, they continually and systematically shed old stems as they produce new stems. Locally, they tend to shed more than they grow during late autumn and winter. The large types of begonias tend to keep their canes for so many years that it is not so obvious. Where winters are colder, cannas freeze to the ground, only to regenerate from their thick rhizomes as winter ends.

Zonal geraniums may seem rather tired this time of year for the opposite reason. They expect late autumn weather to include frost that would kill them back to the ground where they would stay relatively dormant until warmer weather after winter. Just because their foliage is instead evergreen through winter does not mean that it should be. It lingers and often becomes infested with mildew and rust (fungal diseases) that proliferate in humid autumn weather.

However, zonal geraniums need not be pruned back just yet. Even if they eventually get damaged by frost, pruning should be delayed so that the already damaged older foliage and stems can shelter the even more sensitive new growth as it emerges below. They can get cut back after frost would be likely.

Evergreen pear can get very spotty once the warm weather runs out because the same damp and cool weather that inhibits its growth also promotes proliferation of the blight that damages and discolors the foliage. The damaged foliage eventually gets replaced as new foliage emerges in spring, but will remain spotty and discolored until then. Photinia does not get as spotty, but holds blighted foliage longer into the following summer. Ivy can be temporarily damaged by a visually similar blight.

Plants Know What Time It Is

Deciduous trees will eventually begin to defoliate.

Even without significant cool weather, the garden knows that it is now autumn. Most of the late summer blooming flowers are finishing their last bloom phases. Leaves of some of the deciduous trees, shrubs and vines are changing color, and some are already falling. Perennials that are dormant through winter are starting to deteriorate.

One of the several difficulties of living in a climate with so few difficulties is that autumn and winter weather is so very mild. Just as so many warm season annuals and vegetables want to continue to perform when it is time for them to relinquish their space to cool season annuals and vegetables, many other plants that should go dormant in autumn really want to stay awake as long as they can. Some semi-deciduous perennials even start to regenerate new growth before they shed their old growth.

Where winters are cooler, such plants generally shed the growth that developed in the previous year; in other words, they die back. They then stay dormant through the coolest part of winter, to break dormancy and regenerate late in winter or early in spring.

Beard tongue (Penstemon) can really look bad as the last flower spikes deteriorate, and the foliage gets spotty and grungy. It will be tempting to cut them back early. If possible, it is better to prune off only the deteriorating flower spikes, but wait until later in winter for major pruning. Premature pruning stimulates premature development of new growth that does not mature as well or as fast through winter as it would in spring. Such growth can be discolored, sparse and less vigorous until it gets obscured by later growth.

Marguerite daisy, ginger, canna, some salvias, most begonias, the various pelargoniums and all sorts of other perennials will likewise seem to be rather tired this time of year and through winter, but do not necessarily need to be pruned back just yet. Simply plucking or shearing off deteriorating flowers should be enough for now. Ginger and canna should not need to be pruned back until the foliage deteriorates enough to be almost unsightly. Begonias and pelargoniums, particularly common zonal geraniums, will be better insulated from potential frost damage through winter, and may not produce so much sensitive new growth if not pruned early.

Cold Winters Have Certain Advantages

Winter frost can improve spring bloom.

Even in May, damage from the frosts of last winter is still evident among some of the more sensitive plants. Lemon trees and bougainvilleas that have not yet been pruned may still display bare stems protruding above fresher new growth. Some bougainvilleas did not survive. Those that are recovering will bloom later because replacement of foliage is their priority for now.

However, peonies, although rare, are blooming better than they have since 1991, right after one of the worst frosts in recorded history. Earlier, some lilacs, forsythias and wisterias likewise bloomed unusually well. While so many plants were succumbing to cold weather, many others were enjoying it.

The reason that peonies typically do not seem as happy locally as they are in severe climates is that they really prefer more cold weather while they are dormant through winter. Without it, they may not go completely dormant, or may not stay dormant long enough to get the rest that they need; and then wake up tired in spring. Cold winter weather promotes more adequate dormancy, which stimulates healthier growth and bloom this time of year. It all makes sense considering that peonies are naturally endemic to colder climates.

A preference for cooler winter weather is also why so many varieties of apples and pears that are grown in other regions do not perform well here. The good news is that as the fruit of local apple and pear trees matures through spring and summer, it may be of better quality that it has been for many years. Trees that typically produce sparsely may produce more abundantly this year. The weather that damaged tropical and subtropical plants was an advantage to others.

Nothing can restore cherries, apricots, peaches and any other early blooming fruit that was dislodged by late rain, but any fruit that survived may be just as unusually good as apples and pears. Not only is the best place for gardening, but minor weather problems can have certain advantages.

Knowing When To Prune What

Flowering plum trees can be pruned later, after bloom.

Maybe the weather took the surprise out of camellias this year. It has been so warm and pleasant that such big and colorful flowers are almost expected. Even if crocuses and narcissus did not bloom much too early, they are likely finishing a bit early because of the warmth and minimal humidity. Daffodils are not far behind. Hopefully, lilies and tulips will not be too confused. Pansies, primroses, stock, Icelandpoppies, ornamental cabbages and kales actually seem to enjoy the odd weather.

It was such a rush to prune everything that needs to be pruned in winter! Roses are already being outfitted with new foliage. Plum trees are already blooming, and will be followed by apricots, cherries, peaches and the rest. It was actually easy to get carried away, and prune things that should not yet be pruned.

Many of the flowering trees that are related to fruiting trees seem like they should be pruned. However, the rules are different, since they do not need to support the weight of fruit. Pruning only compromises bloom. Flowering cherries, flowering (purple leaf) plums and shrubby flowering quinces should instead be pruned after bloom finishes, and only if necessary. As flowering crabapples finish bloom, minor pruning probably will be necessary.

Lilacs, forsythias and spireas should be pruned by ‘alternating canes’, which means that older canes get cut to the ground as they get replaced by new canes. If done just after bloom, new canes develop through the following summer, and will be ready to bloom the following spring.

Quite a few trees, shrubs and vines likewise want specialized treatment. Fat flower buds of deciduous magnolias make it obvious that pruning should be delayed. Azaleas should probably make their intentions to bloom more obvious. Hydrangeas can be groomed of deteriorated flowers and dead stems, but plump canes from last year will bloom this year. Maples, birches and elms will continue to bleed if pruned now, so should wait for summer.

Good Weather Can Be Bad

This should be the rainy season.

As if the lack of rain is not serious enough, the lack of cool winter weather will also cause problems for gardening. Warmth is certainly not as bad as drought, and makes gardening and other outdoor activities more pleasurable, but it interferes with the schedules and cycles that we and the flora in our gardens rely on. Something as natural as the weather should not be so unnatural.

The earlier unseasonably cold weather convinced plants that it really was winter. The problem is that the weather then turned unseasonably warm, and has stayed this warm long enough for plants to believe that it is spring! Some established (not freshly planted) narcissus and daffodils that should bloom as winter ends are already blooming, and some that are naturalized where they get no supplemental watering are already fading from the lack of moisture.

Buds of dormant roses are not staying so dormant, and may soon pop and start to grow. Buds of dormant fruit trees could do the same. When the rain finally starts, it will likely damage and spread disease among freshly exposed rose foliage and newly developing buds. Fungal and bacterial diseases that get an early start will likely proliferate more than they normally do through the following spring. Rain can likewise damage and dislodge fruit blossoms.

The many plants in the garden fortunately have a remarkable capacity for adaptation to weird weather. Bulbs, roses, fruit trees and other plants should eventually recover and get on with life as if nothing happened. The weather is actually more of a problem to those of us who want an early and healthy abundance of roses and an abundance of fruit in summer.

It is still a bit too early to know how the weather will affect what happens in the garden this spring, but fruit production of many types of fruit, as well as bloom of some types of flowers is expected to be inhibited.

Winter Is Time For Pruning

Pomegranate trees appreciate major specialized pruning.

Plants are unable to migrate to warmer climates for winter like so many migratory birds do. They are immobile for their entire lives. Only potted plants can move to more sheltered situations when the weather gets too cool for them. Some get to live inside as houseplants. Otherwise, they all must contend with seasonally changing weather. Most are impressively efficient with how they do so.

Most that do not adapt efficiently to cool winter weather are tropical species. Tropicals that are native to high elevations can tolerate cold weather. However, many of the familiar tropical species are from low elevations where they never experience cold weather. Frost damages or kills them. Warm season annuals do not tolerate cool weather either. They just die at the end of their season.

Otherwise, almost all other plants go dormant through winter, at least to some degree. Even evergreen plants, which may not seem to go dormant, grow much slower during winter, or do not grow at all. Deciduous plants are much more obvious about their dormancy, because they defoliate. While bare, they are less susceptible to damage from wintry weather. Dormancy is like hibernation.

This is why winter is the best time for pruning most plants. While dormant, they are less susceptible to distress associated with pruning. Some plants expect some degree of damage from wintery weather during their dormancy anyway. They wake in spring, with no idea of what happened while they slept, and resume normal growth. Winter pruning conforms quite naturally to their life cycles.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. Citrus and avocado should not be pruned during winter. Such pruning stimulates new growth, which is sensitive to frost. Maple and birch should have been pruned earlier. They bleed annoyingly if pruned late into winter. Flowering trees that produce no fruit, such as flowering dogwood and flowering cherry, should be pruned after bloom, late in spring.

Deciduous fruiting trees, such as apricot, cherry, plum, peach, apple and pear, require specialized pruning during winter.

Winter Is For Getting Bare

Bare root plants do not look like much . . . yet.

Even before the last of the Christmas trees vacate nurseries, bare root nursery stock begins to move in, and will be available through winter. As the name implies, ‘bare root’ stock has bare roots, without media (‘potting soil’) or cans (pots) to contain the roots. Many are temporarily heeled into damp sand from which they get dug and wrapped in newspaper when purchased. Others are packaged in damp wood shavings or coarse sawdust contained in narrow plastic bags.

Bare root plants do not mind the lack of media because they get dug, shipped, sold and finally planted into their permanent locations all while naturally dormant through winter. They were in the ground when they went dormant, and will be back in the ground in their new homes by the time they wake up in spring. Because they have not already developed a densely meshed root system within a limited volume of media, they happily disperse new roots directly into the soil where they get planted.

Because they lack relatively bulky cans, bare root plants need less space in nurseries. Many more varieties of deciduous fruit trees, grapevines, roses and berries can therefore be made available. They also cost about half as much as common canned nursery stock.

If bare root plants will not be planted immediately, their roots should be heeled into damp dense mulch (not coarse chips) or soil, and watered. They can be soaked in buckets of water if planting will be delayed only for a day or two. Packaged plants need not be heeled in, and can wait in the shade for more than a week.

Planting holes do not need to be any wider or deeper than the roots. If the soil is loosened too deeply, in will likely settle and cause the new plants to sink. Graft unions must stay above the surface of the soil. (Graft unions are evident where rose plants branch, or as kinks low on tree trunks.) If backfill soil is amended at all, it should be amended only minimally. Otherwise, roots may not want to disperse very far. New plants should be soaked twice in order to settle soil around the roots, but if it rains soon enough, they may not need to be watered again until they start to grow in spring.

Once planted, most bare root plants need some sort of pruning. Fruit trees typically have more stems than they need to maximize the options for their first structure pruning.

Dormancy And Defoliation Are Advantageous

Kahili ginger is finished blooming, and should get cut back once the foliage succumbs to frost.

Many plants are deciduous in autumn and winter, which means that they defoliate or die back, and then refoliate or regenerate in spring. Many others are evergreen, which simply means that they are always foliated through all seasons. What many people do not realize is that evergreen plants replace their foliage just like deciduous plants do. They just do not do it in such distinct phases of defoliation, dormancy and refoliation.

Tropical plants like cannas and some of the various begonias really have no need for formal defoliation, since they are from climates that lack winter. In the wild, they continually and systematically shed old stems as they produce new stems. Locally, they tend to shed more than they grow during late autumn and winter. The large types of begonias tend to keep their canes for so many years that it is not so obvious. Where winters are colder, cannas freeze to the ground, only to regenerate from their thick rhizomes as winter ends.

Zonal geraniums may seem rather tired this time of year for the opposite reason. They expect late autumn weather to include frost that would kill them back to the ground where they would stay relatively dormant until warmer weather after winter. Just because their foliage is instead evergreen through winter does not mean that it should be. It lingers and often becomes infested with mildew and rust (fungal diseases) that proliferate in humid autumn weather.

However, zonal geraniums need not be pruned back just yet. Even if they eventually get damaged by frost, pruning should be delayed so that the already damaged older foliage and stems can shelter the even more sensitive new growth as it emerges below. They can get cut back after frost would be likely.

Evergreen pear can get very spotty once the warm weather runs out because the same damp and cool weather that inhibits its growth also promotes proliferation of the blight that damages and discolors the foliage. The damaged foliage eventually gets replaced as new foliage emerges in spring, but will remain spotty and discolored until then. Photinia does not get as spotty, but holds blighted foliage longer into the following summer. Ivy can be temporarily damaged by a visually similar blight.