Timely Tree Tips – Perils of early spring pruning

Cherry trees on the Capitol Campus Photo: Micki McNaughton, DNR
Cherry trees on the Capitol Campus Photo: Micki McNaughton, DNR

Spring is just around the corner and with it comes the emergence of fresh green leaves and the bright blooms of flowering trees and shrubs. But resist the temptation to prune your trees now; early spring pruning can actually harm trees.

In early spring–that is to say RIGHT NOW–trees are tapping energy reserves from the previous growing season to activate buds throughout the tree canopy. As the tree streams sap (energy) to its buds, those buds will begin to swell and unfurl into flowers, leaves and new twigs.

Trees require a lot of energy to wake up from dormancy and get growing again. They cannot recoup the energy spent on spring growth until new leaves begin photosynthesizing and producing more food for the tree.

Whacking on your tree in early spring year after year can create a chronic energy deficit and begin, or accelerate, a spiral of decline. Stress is compounded with each early spring pruning, making your tree more susceptible to other problems.

Early spring is precisely the wrong time of year to prune trees. Pruning in early spring before budbreak can:

  • Rob the tree of energy reserves that have already been allocated to buds for spring growth.
  • Remove buds that will become new leaves, undermining the tree’s capacity to recoup lost energy.
  • Remove flower buds that will become flowers, reducing the number of fragrant blossoms and, on fruit trees, reduce the amount of fruit produced.
  • Raise the risks of harmful bark damage, such as tearing or ‘slipping,’ especially on young trees.
  • Create “pruning wounds” that tend to ‘weep’ or ‘bleed’ more as sap rises under high hydraulic pressure. Those wounds may attract diseases and insects.

All of these issues can be made far worse through improper pruning practices such as topping, flush cuts or severe over-pruning.

So relax. Watch the luscious leaves unfurl and expand in all the shades of green. Enjoy the profusion of glorious blossoms. Take in the lovely scents that fill the air in the warming days of spring.

Once the petals have floated to the ground and leaves are in full production mode, then it’s time to break out the pruning tools. …unless of course you want fruit from your tree. In that case, you’ll need to wait until after the harvest.

And if you really enjoy the way trees transform in spring, plant one for Arbor Day. Think of it as a do-over for all of those poorly pruned trees out there.

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