We seem to be in the midst of the annual January thaw, a seasonal phenomenon that isn't overlooked by gardeners.
This is the perfect time to sneak in a little pruning while the shrubs and trees and still dormant and before the next wave of winter temperatures force us back indoors.
A lot of people are afraid of pruning. Anytime we start cutting away, we know that's pretty much it. There is no turning back. But once you get the hang of it, pruning can be not only fun, but beneficial to the plant too, especially if that plant is a dwarf or miniature tree or shrub.
Dwarf and miniature trees and shrubs will grow, although slowly, and over a number of years could get larger than the space provided. If that's the case, a little trimming will help keep the plant at the right size and shape for the landscape.
Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees in particular are popular for gardeners who want the benefit of fruit but don't have the space for full size trees. These trees can get away from us with wild growth after a few years, which usually means smaller fruit. When fruit trees are kept small with proper pruning, the plants can focus most of their energy on producing fruit rather than growing big and strong.
Start by trimming away small shoots that emerge from the tree's trunk or older branches. These are small twigs are called water sprouts and are usually so small and weak that they aren't strong enough to hold fruit anyway. Don't feel bad about trimming them away.
In addition, cut away any suckers that emerge around the base of the tree or nearby.
The next thing I look at when pruning are branches that criss-cross each other or branches that are growing straight up through the center.
There are plenty of ways to prune, but I prefer a dish shape with center branches trimmed away to allow lots of light inside and air to circulate through the plant.
Many times a shrub will be nice and full on the outside, but if you push away the leaves and branches to expose the center, you'll see lot of bare branches and brown leaves. This is usually because there isn't enough light getting through to the center of the shrub.
Once the initial pruning is done, now it's time to stand back and look at what's left. The general rule of thumb is not to remove more than one-third of the tree or shrub. If a plant has been neglected and is very much overgrown, it could take a few years to get it back to the size and shape you want, but be patient.
The reason we prune is not just to keep plants the right size. Pruning also helps keep the plant healthy by getting rid of any diseased or broken branches. Except in the case of spring flowering shrubs and trees, pruning away old growth also promotes new growth and flower buds for the upcoming season.
It is important to note that you should never prune spring flowering shrubs, such as lilac, forsythia, redbud, dogwood and others. Those plants bloom on branches that grew the prior year, commonly called ''old wood.''
If you pruned these shrubs in winter, you will cut away the branches that form flowers. Wait until after these plants bloom in spring before pruning so they have time to produce new growth this year for next year's flowers.
Finally, make sure your pruning tools are clean and sharp. Wash off any dirt or debris left from the last pruning session and give the blades a few hits with a rasp, sharpening stone, grinder or other sharpening tool. If it's been a while, you might want to consider having the tools professionally sharpened.
Disinfect the tools with a solution of one part bleach to three parts water and let the blades soak in the solution for five to 10 minutes. Rinse in clear water and let the tools air dry.