Pruning for holiday greens

Published 6:15 am Saturday, December 5, 2020

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By Sheri Bethard

Texas Certified Master Gardener, Orange County Master Gardeners

One of the biggest bits of misinformation is to always have to try and correct at this time of year comes packaged in the inevitable fall gardening story: “cleaning up your landscape for winter”. Here’s what you should do instead.
Yes, you should remove (or at least shred) any leaves that are smothering lawns and plants.
And yes, you should remove (and compost) your pitiful dead tomato plants and such.
But you should not “neaten things up” by pruning.
Realizing that some of your plants are probably overgrown and that you have the odd shoot sticking out like a sore thumb is normal. Now your summer garden has finished producing, bloom time is over, and you tend to bore easily. Add a beautiful sunny day id and suddenly you find yourself in front of a plant, pruners in hand, ready to do what you will call ‘straightening up’ but the plant would call simple assault.
Pruning done outside of the dormant period will stimulate new growth. Simple physics really: You want the plant to stay small and cute, like your damaged memory thinks your children once were. The plant, however, wants to be as big as possible so that it can absorb the most solar energy and maybe get served in a bar.

Pruning stimulates growth.
Pruning at the worst possible time of year (the Fall) will cause new growth to be stimulated just as winter is coming around the corner. That causes two bad things to happen. One: you are forcing the plant to grow while it’s trying to go dormant. Energy that was being sent down to the roots is now being spent in the name of new growth. In a bad winter, that diversion alone could kill a plant that would have survived if left unmolested.
But wait–there’s more! That new growth–full of fresh sap–will freeze solid on the first night afterwards that dips into the twenties, perhaps even bursting under the strain. (Your reaction? “Hey–that rose branch looks awful; I better prune it again”.)
When should you prune? You can prune the branches of anything in the dead of winter. Fully dormant plants won’t be stimulated. Don’t hack anything back to the ground, however, or you’ll expose the crown to severe winter injury. And you will ruin the show on spring bloomers by pruning in the winter. Azaleas, rhododendrons, flowering apples and cherries, lilacs, forsythia and the like should be pruned right after the flowers fade in the Spring. Summer bloomers like roses, butterfly bush, hardy hibiscus and crepe Myrtle should be pruned a couple of weeks after new growth appears in the Spring.
But Christmas is coming! And holly and evergreens from the landscape provide perfect ‘live’ decorations! Can’t we use the plants in our yard?
Yes, you can, but you have to cheat
Lightly pruning may be used to collect greens for the holiday, but do not heavily prune at this time. Holly’s can be pruned in December for Christmas greens along with pines. Again, please be diligent when pruning for Christmas greens and evergreens. Harvest these branched during a cold spell to use for your greens.

If you have a horticultural question, please call our Hot Line Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 409 882-7010 or email