It’s November. The daffodil bulbs are all tucked in the ground and ready for a spring showing. The overgrown perennials have been pulled, trimmed and replanted. The iris beds have been cleaned out for weeks. There really aren’t any other chores that have to be done this minute, but the sky is bright blue and the temperature is perfect and the fanatical gardeners of the world absolutely must take advantage of one more day working in the yard (It could be the last perfect day of the year, you know….) And in their need to garden just one more time, they too often reach for a potentially dangerous and deadly tool -- their pruners.
Once upon a time, fall pruning was the norm; gardeners snipped and cut and sawed away at everything from vining plants to fully mature trees without a second thought. Today, experts take a different stance: with few exceptions the new rule is: Don’t Prune in the Fall!
The fall season is when plants begin to prepare for winter by going dormant. Since cutting most plants back actually encourages them to put on new growth, fall pruning doesn’t give new growth enough time to properly harden off before freezing temperatures hit. The plants then have a harder time withstanding winter conditions and are often severely weakened when they emerge in the spring.
While waiting until plants are in full dormancy is preferred (the dead of winter), there are a few exceptions to the rule.
- Dead branches that can become hazards, causing property damage and even injury should be removed. Use clean, sharpened tools and cut as close to the main stem as possible.
- Diseased branches should be cut and physically carried away. Make sure you thoroughly clean pruners with a bleach solution after cutting away diseased branches to prevent the unintended spread of harmful microbes.
- Damaged branches can provide a winter haven for damaging insects and diseases. Removing the damaged branches in the fall can help prevent serious problems in the spring.
When pruning is necessary, it is important to select the right tool for the job. The size of the branch to be pruned, where it is located and whether it is alive or dead are the three factors that determine which type of pruner to choose.
Bypass pruners have scissors-like blades that slice well through live branches.
Anvil style pruners are better for dead material since their single top blade clamps downward on a metal plate. The crushing action can be harmful to living branches.
Lopers are preferred for bigger branches since they can cleanly cut through ones with large diameters.
Extendable pole saws are helpful when trying to prune upper branches without using a ladder. Although helpful, they can be awkward to use without practice.
Even though picking up your pruners is not the way to end the gardening season, there are still plenty of necessary chores to keep gardeners active until winter sets in. Join us next time as we think about the most environmentally friendly ways to put the garden to bed for the winter.