Pruning cherry trees is an essential yearly task for any backyard orchard grower. Well-pruned cherry trees are healthier, more productive, and better able to resist disease. But when’s the best time of year to prune them?
Many gardeners believe summer is ideal, as the tree can quickly heal any pruning wounds while active and growing. However, pruning cherry trees during their winter dormancy also offers unique advantages that deserve consideration.
Below we’ll explore the key pros and cons of winter cherry tree pruning, proper techniques to use, and how it compares to summer pruning. Let’s dive in!
Why Prune Cherry Trees in Winter?
Pruning during winter dormancy offers some clear cut benefits:
- Increased visibility – without leaves, you can clearly see the tree’s branching structure, making decisions easier regarding what to remove.
- Prevents sun scalding – removing branches in winter means no tender young leaves suddenly exposed to hot sunshine.
- Reduced disease pressure – less chance of infections from bacteria and fungi due to lack of wounds and tender shoots.
The enhanced visibility aspect is useful for assessing if the cherry tree needs:
- Structural pruning
- Thinning cuts to remove crowded branching
- Height reduction to ease harvesting
This makes winter an ideal time for modifying the overall shape and size of cherry trees via selective branch removal.
Risks of Pruning Cherry Trees in Winter
However, pruning at this time also carries increased risks you need to factor in:
- Cold damage – pruning away protective branches leaves newly exposed wood vulnerable to extreme low temperatures, drying winds, and sun scalding once growing season resumes.
- Cracking – vulnerable to branch breakage from heavy snow and ice accumulation on excess vertical shoots.
- Delayed healing – wounds close slower in dormancy due to reduced cell growth, raising chance of disease infection through weakened cracking trunks and branches.
To mitigate these risks, proper precautions must be taken:
- Wait until the tree is fully dormant and has dropped all leaves
- Use sharp, sterile bypass hand pruners and saws
- Cut just outside branch collars without tearing bark
- Limit removal to 30% or less per year
- Apply protective sealant to any large cut areas
Even with excellent winter pruning methods, you must accept some degree of risk from the factors noted above. The ideal approach balances the benefits of visibility and convenience with the heightened chance of tree damage from cold exposure and delayed healing.
How to Prune Cherry Trees in Winter
Follow these key steps for safe and effective winter cherry tree pruning:
Choose the Right Time
Wait until the tree enters full dormancy, ideally after several hard frosts well into late fall or early winter. This ensures all leaves have dropped and growth processes have stopped, providing ideal visibility.
Do not prune too early! You may accidentally trigger new growth vulnerable to deadly frost damage.
Use Proper Tools and Techniques
The basic process is the same as summer pruning:
- Sterilize tools in diluted bleach between trees to prevent disease spread
- Work from the bottom up when removing branches
- Cut just outside the branch collar without leaving stubs
- Use clean, sharp bypass hand pruners for smaller cuts
- Use sharp pruning saws (curves, handsaws, polesaws as needed) for large branches, sterilizing between trees
- Leave the tree’s piping and collar intact when removing large branches
- Avoid excessive “topping” and removal beyond 30% annually
This helps encourage proper wound closure and reduces infection risks significantly.
Focus on Thinning Cuts
Where possible, use “thinning cuts” that remove entire branches back to lateral shoots or the main trunk:
Heading cuts that simply stub major branches should be avoided when possible, as they are slower to seal in winter. Thinning eliminates excess branching for better airflow and light penetration within the tree canopy during summer as well.
Apply Protective Coatings to Large Cuts
For any pruning cuts over 2 inches in diameter, apply a waterproof tree wound sealant or latex paint. Choose paint/sealants specifically formulated for horticulture use rather than household varieties whenever possible. Sealants protect the vulnerable inner wood layers from desiccation and provide an added moisture barrier against fungal spores accessing damaged tissue.
Follow all label safety directions carefully when applying wound sealants.
Pruning Cherry Trees in Summer vs Winter – Which is Best?
Below is a comparison of the major differences when pruning cherry trees during winter dormancy vs peak summer growth:
|Branch Structure Visibility
|Sun Scalding Risk
|Likelihood of Refoliation
|Cold Damage Risk
|Wound Healing Speed
|Effect on Fruit Yield
As shown above, both seasons have pros and cons for pruning cherry trees safely.
Many orchard managers use a combined approach:
- Structural pruning focused on canopy shape/height during winter
- Maintenance pruning focused on small branches during late summer
This balances out the benefits from increased winter visibility for major cuts and faster wound sealing from minor summer pruning. Heavy pruning should be avoided just before the cherry fruit ripening season in early summer regardless.
- Winter pruning allows clearly viewing branches but has slower regrowth from cuts
- Late summer pruning has faster wound closure but visibility within canopy is reduced
- Mix of dormant and summer pruning is often an ideal compromise
Many backyard cherry growers are uncertain whether they should be pruning cherry trees during cold winter months or waiting instead until the growing season.
As outlined above, pruning cherry trees in winter has distinct visibility advantages for structural shaping thanks to the lack of leaves. However, the increased risks of cold damage, cracking, and delayed healing cannot be ignored and require mitigation.
Using proper timing, techniques, tools, and protective sealants minimizes these winter pruning hazards significantly. A mixed strategy of major dormant pruning combined with minor summer pruning is preferred for health and productivity.
While summer cherry tree pruning promotes faster wound closure if done properly, the improved access and tree form control from winter pruning makes it a worthy practice with the right precautions.
Hopefully the risks and procedures are now clearer on whether one can successfully prune cherry trees during winter! Reach out with any other backyard orchard questions.