Pruning is a task that is beneficial for trees and shrubs to keep them healthy and vibrant. This is also a task that many of us, me included, are nervous about performing. The garden is at its most dormant period in late winter, making it a good time to prune.

There are many reasons to prune: to remove dead or dying branches, branches that cross one another, branches growing toward the middle of the tree, suckers growing out at the base and branches growing at a tight angle.

Thinning out the top of the tree to let air move through the branches and let light into the plant also is recommended. Sometimes the crown needs to be raised by cutting lower branches, as well. Be careful while doing this and do not remove too many branches when the tree is young or the tree will have a funny shape for several years until it recovers.

Trees are stronger if they have a central trunk. To achieve this, it means shortening the competing branch or branches leaving the remaining branch to develop into the leader. There are some exceptions to this rule. Trees such as crape myrtles and river birches, which are grown for their interesting bark and are pruned to develop multi-trunks, do not follow the same rules.

Winter pruning is ideal for hardwood trees. Cut the branches just above the branch collar. This is an area just above where the branch joins the tree. You can often identify it by the wavy bark as it joins the tree. If you cut right at the trunk, the tree will not heal as quickly as it will if you cut just above the twists of wrinkled bark. When the branch is cut properly, nature will heal the wound.

You can wait to prune trees such as redbuds, dogwoods and crabapples because of their lovely spring flowers, but I usually prune these now, too, because I do a better job when there are no leaves on the tree.

However, you can lightly prune spring blooming trees just after they bloom.

To remove large branches, you will need to make several cuts to avoid damaging the bark or having a large limb fall and hurt you. Cut off the end of the branch and then work your way back toward the branch collar, making several cuts along the branch. When you get closer to the branch collar, cut smaller pieces until your cut is made at the right point above the branch collar.

Now is also a very good time to prune cedars, junipers and other evergreens while they are still dormant.

If you have unwanted lower branches on evergreens, prune in late winter but go easy because evergreens are less forgiving than hardwoods. I would not cut lower branches unless you are certain you want them removed. Some evergreen trees will not put out new growth below the lowest branch of green needles.

I visited the Byron Richards garden in Hendersonville, North Carolina, last year. They have an incredible collection of evergreen trees and shrubs. They told me that every tree and shrub in their collection received some kind of pruning every year.

Pearl Frye, the owner of a topiary garden in Bishopville, also prunes all his specimens several times a year to make the shapes he is looking to have. However this is not necessary unless you want some kind of specific shape.

Pruning shrubs is more shrub-specific; therefore, you need to know more about each plant. I am asked more about pruning shrubs than any other question. I will write about pruning shrubs in my next article.