Cutting back big limbs on trees is generally discouraged during the growing season, but winter is an optimal time to prune trees.
The reason winter is a good time to prune trees is because now that the leaves are gone, it’s easier to see the shape of the tree and determine which limbs need to be trimmed back.
Plus, pruning a tree during the growing season presents its own set of problems, particularly because doing so can strip bark off of the trunk, exposing the tree to bug infestation and the elements, which can result in decay.
However, Walter Reeves, known to many as the Georgia Gardener, notes that pruning a tree can be done easily with little harm to the tree. The key is to take your time in trimming.
“You can remove up to 25 percent of the total foliage of a tree during the growing season without hurting it,” writes Reeves on his Web site, walterreeves.com. “You can remove up to 30 to 50 percent of the total limb structure of a tree during winter without hurting it.”
Reeves explains that if one cut is made next to the trunk, the limb will hang before the final cut is made, likely stripping bark down the trunk. Using a three-cut technique to remove larger limbs is recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service because it results in less exposed wood, reduces the chance of decay.
“First, make a cut about 15 inches from the trunk,” writes Reeves. “Start from the bottom and cut one-third of the way up through the limb. The second should be made from the top down, but started 2 inches farther away from the trunk than the first cut. The branch will break away as you make the second cut.
“The third cut is made to remove the stub that is left and is made at the collar area,” he explains.
While the winter months, January in particular, are considered the best time to prune trees, one expert says that waiting to prune some trees is advisable.
Former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Agent Charles Philips, who now operates his own horticulture consulting business, said that homeowners should wait until after spring bloom to trim certain trees.
“Spring-flowering trees such as Bradford pears and redbuds can be pruned after they bloom,” he said. “The rest can be pruned now.”
Early spring bloomers set their flower buds the fall before. Pruning them now will mean the loss of some blossoms. However, if a particular limb needs to be trimmed back, it’s OK to do so with the knowledge that some buds will be sacrificed in the pruning.