This time next week January 2020 is in the books. Time continues to fly by, and as time passes, so do our opportunities to reclaim and improve our trees and landscapes. The dormancy of winter is the time to break out the pruners and go to work on our fruit trees and shrubbery. 

Before we go any farther, let me offer that many times our landscapes in this part of the world are very diverse and the correct time to prune and shape will vary from species to species. Many of our early and summer blooming shrubs and tree can suffer from cold damage or winter kill if we do not observe the correct month and season to maintain their growth. To that end there is easily accessible help online from our Virginia Cooperative Extension public website. Within the site, you will find publications such as VCE #430-459 “A Guide to Successful Pruning: Pruning Shrubs” and VCE #430-462 “A Guide to Successful Pruning: Shrub Pruning Calendar.”

Our fruit trees do need care given to them in February. A general rule of thumb is that if a branch grows up or crosses another branch, it is a candidate for removal. A good apple tree should not be allowed to get much over 10 feet tall, and as you well know, many in our area are three times that height. Selecting a central leader and letting it set the upper most reaches of the tree is best done when the tree is very young…. just a few years old. From there, you will need to establish a three- to four-prong whorl around the leader that will become the main branches of the mature tree.

There is a right and wrong way to remove woody material from the tree as well. Never leave a “stubby” end of a branch on the tree. These wounded areas “weep” more than a correct cut next to the trunk, and the weeping attracted insects and other predators that can invade the tree.

The end shape of a tree is determined by species. Apple and pear trees should resemble Christmas trees in shape, while peach trees should have open centers that resemble a vase or cup. The whole process of pruning is to allow the fruit to grow to its great potential by providing the two things that any fruit tree needs, ample sunlight and water.

Our evergreen trees can also be shaped up as well during the cooler days. Most evergreen pruning is done for corrective reasons, so seasonal timing is not as important as it is for deciduous species. Pruning during dormancy is the most common practice and will result in a vigorous burst of spring growth. Whenever unexpected damage from vandalism or bad weather occurs, prune immediately. One point I want to make here is that many times people get very concerned (and reasonably so) when their conifers’ lower branches die back. Many evergreen trees prune themselves naturally and a great example of this is the white pine. 

If you have used a balled white pine as a Christmas tree and then set it out, for many years to come it will have that fuzzy, fluffy round fullness that it did when it was part of our holiday decorations, but think about the white pines you see in the woods. Most are 60-plus feet tall and do not have a single branch left up to about 30 feet. Just because this tree used to be a house’s decoration doesn’t exclude it form doing what it does naturally.

Finally, some trees and shrubs may have to be removed due to the onset of disease, weather-related damage or the fact that additions to the property have rendered them to be “the wrong tree in the wrong place.” While it is not cheap, many times homeowners need to bring in a professional tree service to remove the trees without damaging the property of others or putting lives (including your own) at undue risk. Trees can easily push their way into the “tons” category of weight, and their mass isn’t always so perfect as to make it easy to predict the tree’s direction or rate of fall. Play it safe at all times.

Upcoming Events

Jan. 25--Beef Health Conference, VMRCVM, Virginia Tech Campus.

Jan. 27-30--VCE Annual Meeting, Hotel Roanoke.

Feb. 11--Navigating Our Beef Industry Program by Farm Credit, Dinner and Program 5-8:30 PM, Alphin-Stuart Center, Virginia Tech. No charge but must RSVP to Smyth County Farm Bureau by Feb. 7.

Feb. 12-13-- Virginia State Feed Association Meeting, Roanoke. Please contact Mr. Bob Threewitts at 540- 908-7767, email:, or Dr. Gonzalo Ferreira at 540-231-1965, email:

Feb. 12-15--National Farm Machinery Show, Louisville, Kentucky.

Feb. 21--Deadline to consign calves to the March 25 VQA Calf Sale.

March 25--VQA Calf Sale, Tri State Market, Abingdon, 7 p.m.

March 28--VA BCIA Bull Sale, Wytheville.

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Dr. Andy Overbay is Smyth County’s agriculture and natural resources extension agent.

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