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.

Dormant Pruning Promotes Fruit Production

Persimmon trees get pruned after harvest.

While they are dormant through winter, deciduous fruit trees require specialized ‘dormant pruning’. Exceptions are rare. Most need major pruning that might seem to be excessive. Without such pruning, fruit trees produce more fruit than they can sustain. Excessive fruit is very likely to be of inferior quality, beyond reach, and heavy enough to disfigure limbs.

Dormant pruning limits the volume and weight of fruit that can develop during a following season. By eliminating structural deficiencies and maintaining compact form, it improves the structural integrity of trees. It eliminates diseased stems, and concentrates resources into healthy stems. Dormant pruning concentrates resources into less but better fruit too.

Dormant pruning is necessary because of extensive breeding to improve the quality and quantity of fruit that fruit trees produce. The ancestors of modern cultivars of fruit produce either smaller or less abundant fruit that they can generally support in the wild. However, even some wild fruit trees will produce better fruit with pruning to concentrate resources.

The many various types of fruit trees need various types of specialized dormant pruning. Unfortunately, such trees, which are so commonly available from nurseries, do not come with instructions. It is important to be aware of the sort of maintenance any particular fruit tree will require, prior to incorporating it into a garden. Some dormant pruning is extreme! 

The various stone fruits are the most popular deciduous fruit trees. They are of the genus ‘Prunus‘. Their fruits contain single large seeds, or ‘stones’. This includes apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, prune, almond and all their hybrids. They need the most intense dormant pruning. (Almond nuts are stones of leathery fruits that are the hulls of the nuts.)

Although uncommon within the mild coastal climates of Southern California, pome fruits, primarily apple and pear, are very popular too. They require specialized dormant pruning that is very different from what stone fruits need. Likewise, persimmon, pomegranate, fig, mulberry, currant, kiwi, grape and cane berries, each need customized dormant pruning.

The Fruits Of Our Labor

Quince and other fruit used to be much more common in home gardens.

The vast orchards of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are there for a reason. California is one of the best place in the world to grow fruit trees. However, whether they are in vast orchards or compact urban gardens, even the happiest and healthiest of fruit trees need considerable and specialized attention.

Most of the classic deciduous fruit trees have been bred and selected and bred some more over the past many centuries to produce unnaturally large and abundant fruit. Consequently, most are unable to support the weight of all the fruit that they are capable of producing. This is why it is so important for them to be pruned while dormant through winter.

Pruning improves the structural integrity of fruit trees, and limits the abundance and weight of the fruit produced during the following season. With a bit of planning, pruning can keep much of the fruit within reasonable reach so that those picking it do not need to go dangerously high on ladders. Annual winter pruning also promotes vigorous spring and summer growth that is more resistant to disease.

Apricots, plums, prunes, nectarines, peaches and cherries are all related ‘stone’ fruits (of the genus Prunus), so need various degrees of similar pruning. Peaches need more aggressive pruning because the fruit is so heavy. Cherries and almonds need less pruning because the fruit is lighter. (Almonds can grow beyond reach because the nuts get shaken or knocked from the trees instead of picked.) Regardless of the extent of pruning, the ‘four D’s’, which are ‘dead, dying, damaged and diseased’ stems, should be pruned from all deciduous fruit trees.

Vigorous stems that grew last year need to be thinned and cut back but not removed completely since they are the stems that will bloom and develop fruit next year. The stems that grow from them this year will get pruned next winter to produce the following year. Apples, pears and quinces require similar pruning of their vigorous upper growth, but produce much of their fruit on lower ‘spur’ stems that do not elongate much and may never need pruning.

Fig trees are probably the most tolerant of pruning mistakes, since they produce fruit twice each year. Overly aggressive pruning may compromise their first phase of fruiting, but promotes the second phase. Light pruning does the opposite, compromising the second phase by allowing excessive production of the first phase.

Winter pruning of deciduous fruit trees will undoubtedly seem harsh to a beginner. Trees will need more pruning each year as they grow. Fortunately, pruning becomes more familiar with experience, and as the results of pruning can be observed over time. It is among the most important of gardening tasks for those who grow fruit trees, so is really worth studying more thoroughly.

Spring Pruning Of Flowering Trees

Some plants prefer pruning after bloom.

Most major pruning happens while the plants that need it are dormant through winter. That is why it is known as ‘dormant pruning’. Such pruning would be so much more disruptive while plants are blooming, fruiting, foliating or growing. Pruning that happens during other seasons is not as aggressive as dormant pruning. Spring pruning, although practical for some plants, is relatively docile.

For deciduous fruit trees, dormant pruning is very important. It concentrates resources into fruit production, but also limits production to sustainable quantities. Otherwise, such fruit trees would be unable to support the weight of their own copious fruit. Spring pruning of such trees is simply too late. By that time, superfluous fruit has already consumed significant resources, only to be wasted.

Stone fruit trees and pome fruit trees are familiar examples of deciduous fruit trees that rely on dormant pruning. Stone fruits include peach, nectarine, apricot, plum and their relatives. Pome fruits are primarily apple and pear. Ironically though, their fruitless but flowering counterparts perform best with spring pruning instead. As similar as they all are, they have completely different priorities.

Flowering cherry trees bloom more spectacularly than fruiting cherry trees, but produce no fruit. Similarly, flowering crabapple trees bloom more colorfully than fruiting apple trees, but produce only tiny fruit. Neither must sustain production of significant fruit. Nor must they support the increasing weight of developing fruit. Prolific bloom is their primary function. Spring pruning accommodates.

Spring pruning allows flowering trees to first bloom as profusely as possible. Pruned out stems have already served their purpose. Because fruit production is not a concern, spring pruning is less severe than dormant pruning. Nonetheless, because dormant pruning is so practical for so many plants, spring pruning may seem impractical. It is tempting to prune dormant flowering trees now. Doing so harmlessly compromises bloom.

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.

Pruning Roses During Winter Dormancy

Pruning now promotes better bloom later.

Contrary to what the pleasant weather suggests, it is still winter. Most plants are resisting the temptation to break dormancy prematurely. They must know that the days are still short, regardless of the weather. Most plants are surprisingly proficient with scheduling. Nonetheless, dormant pruning should happen sooner than later. This includes pruning roses. They have been ready for a while.

Technically, roses are ready for pruning as soon as they begin to defoliate. Also technically, rose pruning can be as late as the buds of the bare stems remain dormant. Later pruning is preferable in some regions where pruning wounds are susceptible to pathogens. Such delay is riskier here where mild weather can disrupt dormancy prematurely. Wounds are less vulnerable to pathogens.

Pruning roses is about as important as pruning deciduous fruit trees. Without adequate pruning, rose plants become too overgrown to perform properly. Crowded stems are unable to elongate as they should. Diseases and insects proliferate in congested foliage, and damage bloom. Specialized pruning concentrates resources into fewer but significantly more vigorous stems and flowers.

Although the technique may seem to be drastic, pruning roses is not very complicated. Hybrid tea, grandiflora and floribunda roses should retain only three to six of their most vigorous canes. The canes should be only about two feet tall, and cut just above a healthy bud. If possible, they should be canes that grew during the previous year, from bottom to top. Older canes should be removed.

Pruning roses of other classifications may be slightly different. Some types may retain more canes. Climbing types likely retain old canes for several years before replacement. Carpet roses and other ungrafted roses can be cut nearly to the ground, leaving no canes at all. Tree roses are like bush types, but on top of short trunks. New canes grow from their graft unions on top of the trunks.

Of course, potentially vigorous sucker growth that develops from below the graft union of any grafted rose must go.

Deciduous Fruit Trees Need Pruning

Prune now for better peaches later.

Many plants should get most of the pruning they need while they are dormant in winter. Such pruning is less stressful because it happens while plants are naturally sedated. Some plants that need aggressive pruning during their winter dormancy may need no other pruning until the following winter. Most deciduous fruit trees conform to this category. Their pruning is rigorous and specialized.

The innately aggressive pruning that deciduous fruit trees require may seem to be brutally unnatural, but is very justifiable. It is necessary to compensate for unnatural production. After centuries of selective breeding, most deciduous fruit trees produce more fruit than they can support. Their fruit is unnaturally abundant, unnaturally bulky, or both. Such improvement has distinct consequences.

Unlike their wild ancestry, many modern deciduous fruit trees would not thrive for long without intervention. The weight of their fruit eventually breaks and disfigures limbs. Such breakage exposes sensitive bark to sun scald, and leaves wounds open to decay. Insect and disease pathogens proliferate in deteriorating growth. Furthermore, messy excess and unreachable fruit attracts vermin.

Pruning improves the structural integrity of deciduous fruit trees so that they can support their fruit. It also concentrates resources into fewer fruits of superior quality, rather than allowing production of inferior surplus. Invigorated vegetative growth is more resilient to pathogens. Proper pruning removes dead, dying, damaged and diseased growth, the ‘four Ds’, as well as unreachable growth.

The main categories of deciduous fruit trees are stone fruits and pomme fruits. Stone fruits are of the genus Prunus. They include peach, nectarine, apricot, plum, prune, cherry, their hybrids, and almond. (Almonds are the ‘stones’ of their fruits.) Pomme fruits are apple, pear and quince. Peaches need more aggressive pruning than cherries, simply because their fruits are so much bigger.

Pomegranate, persimmon and fig also need specialized pruning while dormant through winter.

Prune Fruit Trees While Dormant

Dormant fruit trees should be pruned aggressively.

After centuries of breeding for abundant production of unnaturally large fruit, deciduous fruit trees have become dependent on specialized pruning while they are dormant through winter. Without pruning, most eventually become overgrown and overwhelmed by their own fruit. The weight of excessive fruit disfigures and breaks limbs. Pathogens proliferate within distressed foliage, crowded fruit and surplus fruit that falls to the ground.

Pruning not only improves the structural integrity of the limbs, but also limits the production and weight of the fruit that will be produced. Limiting production concentrates resources, so that there are fewer, but considerably better fruits, instead of too many inferior fruits. Concentrating the growth of the fewer new stems that develop in spring promotes vigorous growth that is more resistant to pathogens. Ideally, pruning also limits the height of fruit trees, so that much of the fruit develops closer to the ground.

Peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, prunes, and cherries are all relates ‘stone’ fruits (of the genus Prunus), so require various degrees of similar pruning. Peach trees produce the heaviest fruit, so need the most aggressive pruning. Cherries trees produce significantly lighter and smaller fruit, so get pruned relatively minimally. Almonds (which are actually the ‘pits’ of a similar type of stone fruit) get shaken from their trees, so there is no advantage to keeping production close to the ground.

The ‘four Ds,’ which are ‘Dead, Dying, Diseased and Damaged’ stems should be pruned out first. Then the vigorous stems that grew last year should be thinned and cut back, but not removed completely. They are the stems that will bloom and develop fruit the following year. Pomme fruits, such as apples, pears and quinces, develop on similar newer stems that should likewise be pruned down, but many also develop on lower ‘spur’ stems that elongate so slowly that many spurs may never need to be pruned.

Most young deciduous fruit trees will need more pruning each year as they grow. Fortunately, pruning becomes more familiar with experience. Because pruning fruit trees is so specialized and important, it is worth studying more thoroughly.

Fruit Trees Need Specialized Pruning

Even almond trees need some pruning.

For centuries, fruit trees have been bred to produce unnaturally abundant and unnaturally big fruit. That has worked out well for those who enjoy the resulting fruit. It is not such an advantage for the exploited trees that must produce it. Without specialized pruning, most of such trees are unable to sustain healthy development of all the fruit they could potentially produce, or support the weight.

Specialized pruning concentrates resources into less excessive fruit of superior quality. It improves structural integrity of limbs that support the weight of all the fruit too. Trees that produce smaller and lighter fruit, such as cherries, may only need to be trimmed occasionally to eliminate structurally deficient growth. Heavier fruit, such as peaches, necessitates much more aggressive pruning.

Almost all deciduous fruit trees should be pruned about now, before they bloom and foliate at the end of winter. Such pruning is too severe to be done while the trees are active in spring. Summer pruning to maximize production within less space is the only practical option to dormant pruning. Evergreen fruit trees, such as citrus and avocado, should not be pruned or groomed during winter.

The main group of deciduous fruit trees that require dormant pruning in winter are stone fruit, of the genus Prunus. This includes peach, nectarine, apricot, plum, prune, cherry, various hybrids and almond. The second main group are pomme fruit, such as apple, pear and quince. Fig, persimmon and grapevines, as well as roses, need specialized and perhaps very aggressive pruning too.

Dormant pruning of deciduous fruit trees, roses and grapevines is too complex to describe adequately here in just a few paragraphs. Nonetheless, those who grow such plants must be aware of how important it is, and ideally, know how to do it. Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to procure services of horticultural professionals who know or care how to execute such procedures properly.