The Basics and Benefits of Pruning Trees in Winter

It’s time to prune trees that have gone dormant for the winter! Pruning prevents damage to trees, helps shape tree growth, allows for better harvests, and keeps trees healthy. If you decide to prune your trees yourself, follow the tips below for a better, safer pruning experience.

Benefits of Pruning Trees

Pruning has many benefits:

  • Damage Prevention: When seasons change, it’s easy for branches to break either under the weight of snow or under the stress of windstorms. These breaks can cause major damage to both your property (especially the roof and windows of your house or car) and to the tree itself. Pruning can help prevent heavy branches from breaking and falling onto houses, sheds, or other structures.
  • Better Fruit and Flower Yield: If your tree has decorative blossoms or bears fruit, pruning will help focus the tree’s energy on fewer branches, improving the quality of the yearly harvest. Pruning has been shown to increase the size of fruits that a tree produces; it also can improve the quality of the fruit.
  • Shaping and Guiding: Especially during the beginning phases of a tree’s life, it’s important to monitor how the tree grows. Pruning will allow you to encourage even growth and a more beautiful and stable shape.
  • Better Nutrition and Growth: One common form of pruning is crown pruning, wherein foliage from the top of a tree is cut back. This allows sunlight to reach more branches (especially lower branches), which helps create new growth.
  • Disease Prevention and Treatment: Pruning allows more air to flow through a tree’s branches. This can prevent fungal infections that thrive on excess moisture. Unhealthy, diseased trees should also be pruned to prevent diseases from spreading. After each cut, disinfect the pruning tool with bleach or alcohol to prevent the disease from spreading to other branches.

Safety and Tips

It’s important to be safe while pruning trees. Never prune around electrical or utility lines; instead, contact the power company so they can safely remove the branches. Some pruning jobs for large trees will require a ladder, tougher cutting tools, or a scissor lift. If you’re not experienced in tree care, we suggest hiring a professional tree pruning service for large jobs.

Why Late Fall Through Winter Is the Best Time for Pruning

The best time for pruning is during late autumn or winter when the weather is dry, and temperatures are in the 40s(°F). This has a few benefits:

  1. The tree is dormant, so it is protected from the shock of pruning while actively growing and absorbing nutrients.
  2. Because most fungi are dormant in temperatures below 50°F, pruning in winter will prevent diseases from invading the pruned parts of the tree.
  3. Most insects that could hurt your newly pruned tree are in hibernation.
  4. Waiting until the leaves drop allows you to see the true shape of the tree underneath its foliage, which helps you make better cutting decisions.
  5. Pruning before heavy snowfall will prevent branches from becoming overloaded with snow and breaking on their own.

Important Tree Pruning Tidbits

  • Never remove more than 1/3 of the tree limbs per year.
  • Avoid pruning around power lines—call an electrical company instead.
  • Remember that pruning practices for fruit trees vary depending on the type of tree.

How to Prune Your Tree

Pruning a branch consists of three cuts (see diagram). Making the cuts in order is important because the weight of the limb can cause the branch to tear along the trunk, and this method will prevent that from happening.

  1. The first cut on the branch should be 6 to 12 inches from the trunk. The cut should start underneath the limb. Don’t go all the way through the branch yet. Instead, the depth of the cut should be about 1/3 of the thickness of the branch.
  2. The second cut should start above the branch and be an inch farther up the branch from the first cut. It should cut all the way through. If the branch starts to fall as you cut this part of the limb, it will break along the first cut instead of along the tree trunk.
  3. The third cut should start at the branch bark ridge (on the top of the limb where the branch meets the tree trunk) and slant away from the trunk to avoid the branch collar at the lower base of the branch.

How to Prune an Apple Tree

Pruning your apple tree will allow it to produce more fruit and grow into a nicer shape. To prevent infection, apple trees are usually pruned when temperatures are low and the weather is dry.

However, tree branches that break mid-season and small branches that grow from the base of the trunk should be pruned immediately to prevent more serious damage.  You should also thin the fruit of your apple tree to allow the tree to produce a better-quality crop.how to prune a tree

Follow these steps to prune an apple tree:

  1. Trim the tree so it follows the path of the central branch—all branches coming out from the central leader should be pruned back slightly. Cut right above outward-facing buds on the branches to allow the tree to grow fuller and cut at a wider angle (see graphic). Trim the top of the central leader so it’s taller than the other branches.
  2. Space the branches that come out from the main leading branch (the lateral branches) about 4-6 inches apart from each other. Cut off any branches that are closer than 4 inches together on the trunk.
  3. Trim any smaller branches that cross over each other—keep in mind the shape you want your tree to be.
  4. Look for branches that form forks and cut off the smaller of the two branches.
  5. Trim any unhealthy, small offshoots that grow out from the trunk or straight up from branches—these can weaken the tree if they are left.

How to Prune a Cherry Tree

Follow many of the same suggestions given for pruning apple trees: thin the fruit, make wide-angle cuts when pruning, prune in cold weather, and trim small shoots at the base of the trunk immediately. Follow these steps to properly shape a cherry tree:

  1. In the first year, trim the central leading branch and allow a few strong lateral branches to grow out.
  2. Prune little branches that grow too quickly and trim crossing branches.
  3. Periodically trim branches that bear fruit to keep them fresh.
  4. Prune stems about halfway down to allow them to continue bearing fruit.

How to Prune an Apricot Tree

Pruning apricot trees is similar to pruning cherry trees. Again, many of the same guidelines for pruning all fruit trees (cut on a wide angle, thin your fruit, etc.) apply. Apricot trees can be pruned by following these steps:

  1. Prune so the tree has a few main branches that come out from the trunk and sit about 3 feet above the ground—these are called the scaffolding branches.
  2. Trim small shoots on scaffolding branches that are within 6 inches of the trunk to keep the tree strong.
  3. For balance, make sure the scaffolding branches grow at about the same rate—trim the main branches back only if they grow faster than the others.


Stewart’s does not offer pruning services, but we do apply fertilizer, insecticide, and other treatments to allow your tree to grow healthy and strong. Stewarts also has certified arborists on staff who can diagnose problems with your trees and apply fertilizer, insect control, and other treatments. Call or text us at 801-226-2261 to speak with a specialist today!