Consider pruning and its tools in cold weather

Duane Campbell
Duane Campbell

Many years ago we had an overnight low of 35 degrees below zero. That morning a gaggle of us younger (then) guys, well-bundled, were out helping neighbors thaw pipes and start cars. It eventually got warmer and we shed our jackets. Glancing at a thermometer, it had spurted up to near zero and we were warm.

That explains why you freeze to death on a July day in the 50s, but a January day in the 40s is balmy. The January thaw feels so good, particularly after the coldest stretch of frigid weather global warming has given us, that we have to get outside and do something.

During this yearís arctic spell, I had sharpened my pruning tools, at least the ones I could find. They were sharpened and oiled just as the weather said, Come out, come out.

I have some 3-foot boxwood hedges, square cut, that were ragged. I trim them two or three times during the summer, but I back off in fall. Pruning during the growing season prompts new growth, and the new growth is more cold tender than the older establishes parts and would likely winter kill.


New growth is not a problem in January. I spent an hour dressing up the hedges and didnít even break a sweat. Theyíll look neat for several months now, until they start to grow again. But Iím good till late June probably.

Experts make a big fuss about the proper time to prune particular woody plants. Some books even have multi-page charts. My rules are different and much simpler. Prune woody plants when you have the time to do it. Or when they get in the way. I have never pruned a plant to death.

Perhaps the best time to prune trees, particularly fruit trees, is during the January thaw because of the aforementioned rule and because you can see the branches this time of year. A nonscientific guideline for pruning fruit trees is that the branch structure should be open enough for a bird to fly through it. In January you can see that, and Iíll bet a bird would knock himself silly if he tried to fly through most home grounds fruit trees.

I have an escalating armory of weapons for big pruning jobs. First are the Felco No. 2 pruning shears that are always on my belt, at least in warmer months, to remove branches that assault me. In olden days we were told to cut flush, but we have learned better. You should cut just slightly away from the branch it is coming out of. If you look closely at the juncture, you will see that there is a thickened collar at the base of the branch you are removing. You should leave that collar.

For slightly bigger jobs I have a pair of Fiskers anvil loppers, very light and compact. If I had only one pruning tool, I think that would be it. But if that isnít enough, I hunt down a honkiní big pair of bypass loppers.

If that still isnít enough firepower, or more likely if I canít find them, itís time for a small folding saw. Iíve seen people do horrible things with these little tools. Hereís the drill. Remember that little collar from a couple of paragraphs back? Just beyond that collar, make s cut UP from the underside of the branch, cutting about a quarter way through. Then you can go to the top of the branch, slightly further out than your first cut, and saw the branch off. That bottom cut will prevent the severed branch from ripping and making a jagged wound that invites rot.

And if that still isnít enough, I have a chain saw. Somewhere. But by the time I find it, the January thaw will be over.

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at