As you care for your plants and trees year-round, maintenance is an important practice that should not be overlooked. Pruning is a part of plant maintenance that goes along with watering and fertilizing. You may, however, find yourself wondering what the best time of year to prune may be.
Due to the risks that this can cause your trees and plants, you should never prune in the fall. Pruning right before a dormant period can exacerbate the possibility of decay. The wounds from pruning will not be able to heal as the tree or plant goes into a period of dormancy.
We will dive into the different reasons that you should prune your tree, what the best time of year is, and why that is not the fall. Keep reading to learn more!
Is It OK To Prune Trees And Plants In The Fall?
This talk of pruning may have you asking yourself whether it is okay to prune trees during the fall.
The time of year that you choose to prune your plants matters, and can have consequences.
In the same way that pruning can save your tree, or significantly help it, pruning can also damage your tree when done improperly and at the wrong time of year.
It is not recommended to prune trees, or other plants, during the fall months. Plants are at their weakest during this stage, between active and dormant periods.
A plant will not have the faculties to properly heal after pruning or to reap the benefits that pruning offers.
While you could try your luck and prune in the very early fall, as an emergency response to some sort of decay or disease, you will first want to consult with a local professional.
Realistically, the potential damage from pruning in the fall will almost always outweigh the benefits of pruning quickly in response to a situation.
These hypothetical situations may require more insight about the nature of your need to prune, and can be best handled when someone with experience can help you evaluate the solution.
Generally, you should never plan to prune in the fall. Don’t be confused though, pruning can be a difficult thing. For more information on what you should do, check out our article on the best time to prune large trees!
4 Reasons NOT To Prune In The Fall
Okay, onto the good stuff!
These reasons relate directly to the longevity of your tree and are not just suggestions based on looks or convenience.
As I mentioned before, the timing of pruning matters, and could be the difference between a plant that is healthy and one that begins to struggle under the weight of healing from this process.
You’ll find that the following reasons relate to one another, in the same way that individual processes of a plant work together to create a healthy plant as a whole
Fall Pruning Promotes New Growth Right Before a Dormant Period
Pruning your plants will promote new growth, which is a good thing.
However, if you promote new growth at an inopportune time, it may be all for nothing or even perhaps cause extra strain on the plant.
If pruning is done in the fall, or even very late in the summer, the new growths may not have time to develop enough before the cold weather comes.
Cold weather can cause strain on any tree, especially if a winter is particularly harsh.
A dormant period means that growth will stop or slow, and shoots that are still too small, thin, or weak in general may not make it. Their durability may just not be up to par, and any progress made by pruning and allowing for new growth will be made invalid.
For the same reason that you should never plant a new sapling close to winter, you should not be stimulating new, young, growths to be developing. This sets your plant up for failure and hardship, as opposed to the successful flourishing that you want to see.
The reality of this reason to avoid pruning in the fall is that it nullifies any positive results you could have seen had you pruned later in the year.
We want new growths to have the time to develop, become established, and become more resilient before the cold weather and dormant period come back around.
A full year for this progress will have exponentially better results than if you give new growths a couple of months at most.
This brings me to the next reason that you should not prune during the fall, which also has to do with the resilience of your plant.
Fall Pruning Creates Wounds That Won’t Heal Quickly
Another downside of pruning a plant right before a dormant period has to do with the rate of healing.
When a tree or other plant is dormant, many of its internal processes are halted. This includes the ability to close up open wounds and heal themselves.
While pruning a plant is beneficial, it also creates open wounds on a plant. This should be taken into consideration as you plan for your pruning process.
You want to not only think about how long new growths will have to establish but also about how long you are giving those areas of removal to bounce back.
When you take down branches or other limbs from a plant, the area where the cut was made is subject to being harmed. There is the possibility that, as an open wound on the face of a plant, the area could get infected or draw in insects that could harm the plant.
It is for this reason that we want to avoid having a prolonged period where the wound is open.
So, pruning and creating an open wound right before a plant is going to slow down its processes of healing is not the best idea.
This is exactly what happens when we prune in the fall.
You may cut down a limb that is not doing quite so well, but, in turn, you open up an area on your plant that will not readily heal for the coming several months.
That timing would create an issue because the tree is not able to put its energy toward healing the area that was cut until spring.
The open wound will now be subject to affliction or decay but also freezing and negative impacts of the cold weather. Whereas areas that are healthy and established (and protected by bark) may do just fine in the cold, any new cuts may handle cold weather less gracefully.
When pruning takes place in the spring and early summer months instead, a plant has plenty of time during its active period to work on healing the wound and creating new bark (or whatever outer layer the plant may have.)
So, in terms of tree or plant healing after pruning, a fall pruning date is not the way to go. Wait for spring!
It’s Difficult To Tell What Branches Should Be Pruned
Another reason to avoid pruning in the fall has to do with your ability to properly prune.
Not only is it safer and healthier to prune in the spring, but it will make your job a whole lot easier if you can delay that pruning until after the dormant period.
If you wait until spring, after leaves have all fallen and were gone throughout the winter, you’ll have better visibility of the canopy, limbs, or other parts of your plant that may have been previously hidden.
Pruning in the late summer and early fall will keep you from clearly seeing the branches that you are working to prune. While this can be done, it won’t be as simple as pruning in the spring season will be.
Ever heard of the phrase, ‘work smarter, not harder?’ That applies to this situation well.
Fall Pruning Increases The Risk Of Tree Fungal Issues
To go back to one of our reasons above, the fact that wounds will heal more slowly, pruning in the fall could result in more damage to the tree – such as fungal afflictions.
Whereas most people will prune their tree to help avoid the spread of problems, pruning right before a dormant period often has the opposite effect.
Leaving an open wound from the pruning will make your tree unnecessarily susceptible to the elements, affliction, and infestation.
Oak trees are commonly affected by fungus. Read up on 6 simple tips to prevent and remove oak tree fungus!
What Is The Best Time Of Year To Prune Your Plants?
The best time of year to prune a tree, and plants in general, is spring.
Depending on the type of plant you are working with, late winter and early spring may be best. For example, many deciduous trees do best when pruned during this time range.
Other plants may be better off when pruned in the middle of spring, to make sure that the temperatures will not drop again while still providing enough time for healing and new growth.
As a general practice, early-mid spring is the best time to prune plants.
This is another great question to ask when you are purchasing a plant, though research can always be done after the fact, of course.
Why Prune Your Trees And Plants At All?
Pruning is a great way to maintain your trees and other plants. I recommend this practice as often as I recommend sufficient watering and fertilization, which says a lot.
Don’t just take my word for it, though, instead take some time to read about the following reasons that pruning your tree is beneficial.
Here are a couple of the reasons that pruning your plants is so beneficial and, often, necessary:
Pruning Promotes New Growth
Pruning your plants promotes new growth. Say that one three times fast.
Seriously, though, pruning is a great way to help your tree sprout new branches after a period of stagnant growth.
On an indirect level, pruning allows more light to get through the canopy of a plant. This helps the plant to grow new branches and lateral shoots due to this extra access to light.
Directly, pruning is something that stimulates the growth of new shoots.
According to the University of Georgia, pruning a young plant specifically can catalyze vigorous shoot growth. This process may also delay the growth and development of flowers and fruits.
This may sound like a bad thing, but delaying that development will give a plant more time to put energy toward growing its extremities and getting larger.
So, pruning certainly helps to promote new overall growth, especially when done healthily.
Pruning Can Help to Avoid Decay From Spreading
Pruning plants can also be a reactionary solution to issues like decay or the beginnings of disease on your plant.
By pruning an impacted section of said plant, you can avoid the future spread of decay. This is a quick and relatively easy way to nip that problem in the bud.
You’ll want to make sure that your pruning tools, like the gonicc 8” Professional Premium Titanium Bypass Pruning Shears, are clean and ready to use.
Pruning is a solution to decaying sections of a plant, but can also be a way for afflictions to be spread if your tools are not properly prepared.
Say, for example, that you cut off a tree limb that has been affected by some sort of problem. You don’t clean your pruning shears and then later go to prune for general maintenance and shaping. This could spread the bacteria to an area of the plant that would not have otherwise been affected.
So, make sure to prune with clean tools to keep your tree as lively as can be.
Best General Pruning Practices
It is one thing to know when to prune, but what about knowing how to do so in a safe, successful way?
According to the University of Tennessee, it is important to first remove any dead branches that may no longer be attached. Next, you want to cut just outside the branch collar of the tree to be sure that proper healing can take place.
Essentially, this means that you leave enough of a nub of the branch to stay away from damaging the trunk while cutting away enough of the branch that it can heal and will not continue growing.
On that note, it is crucial to keep from causing too much damage to the bark around your cuts. You should be able to tell if your shears are the right size or if they are too small and cutting into areas around the branch.
Proper pruning shears will allow you to avoid damage and more easily go about the pruning process.
Oh and by the way, you should never prune your trees at night.
Tree Maintenance Best Practices After Pruning
So, you know all about pruning now- the why, the when, and the when not to. What other general maintenance practices should you be implementing to best care for your plants?
There are a few basic steps that you can take to set your tree up for success in an easy, manageable way
Properly Water Your Tree
Watering your tree, or other plants may seem like an obvious and simple practice. However, you would be surprised by how often people forget to water, over water, or underwater their plants.
If you are nervous about forgetting to water or want to ensure that your plants get the same amount of water each time around, an irrigation system may be the best solution for you.
The Flantor Garden Irrigation System gives you flexibility in the placement of spouts, while also allowing for individual nozzles to be adjusted for different plant needs.
This way, you can water your plants, trees, gardens, and flower beds in a simple, streamlined way. You won’t have to rely on neighbors if you are away and can also ensure that you avoid some of your potential human errors like forgetting to water or watering the wrong amount.
You can ask your local nursery or the vendor that you purchase your plants from about the amount of water that a given plant should need. You can also inquire about the frequency of watering.
For example, many plants do not need nearly as much water over the winter dormant period and too much water could cause issues like freezing of the soil around a plant.
To be sure of the water that a plant needs, do your research so that you can confidently water any tree, flowers, or plants in general.
Give Your Tree Sufficient Fertilizer
Fertilizing your plants is another important way to easily support them and their growth.
Fertilizer is not ‘plant food’ as it is commonly referred to. Rather, it is a product that helps your tree utilize and absorb the nutrients that it is receiving. This plays an important role in the nourishment of a plant, especially when it is properly hydrated and maintained via pruning.
You can use the NPK number on fertilizers to see how balanced the elements of fertilizer are and to compare that balance with the needs of your plant.
NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium- the main three elements found in fertilizers.
You can look up which NPK value is best for a given plant, or ask the staff wherever you purchase your fertilizer. If you prefer to purchase online, you can always opt for a balanced fertilizer like this Miracle-Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food that will cover the bases for most plants.
If you are having an issue with your plant and need to target a specific problem, ask a professional to help you determine the type of fertilizer that could best help your plants.
If you are working with evergreen trees, you should read our article on the 7 most effective evergreen fertilizers!
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today!
The key thing to remember is that you should avoid pruning in the fall at all costs.
Why shouldn’t you prune during the fall, again?
- New growth may quickly die, negating any progress made by pruning
- Tree wounds from pruning will not heal quickly
- You won’t be able to see branches as well, and pruning will be more difficult
- Heightened risk of tree and plant fungal issues thanks to the slowed healing process
Instead of pruning during the fall, you should plan to prune during the early to mid-spring season. This will give you the best results.
Good luck as you continue along your tree (and plant) journey. We hope this helps!
Bedker, P. J. (1995). How to prune trees (Vol. 1). US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Area, State & Private Forestry.
Mika, A. (2011). Physiological responses of fruit trees to pruning. Horticultural reviews, 8, 337-378.
Stern, R. A., Goren, M., & Gazit, S. (2003, August). The effect of shoot pruning during the fall and winter on lychee flowering and yield. In II International Symposium on Lychee, Longan, Rambutan and other Sapindaceae Plants 665 (pp. 331-336).
Marini, R. P., Sherif, S. M., & Smith, A. H. (2020). Physiology of pruning fruit trees.