Spring is just around the corner, and with that comes the emergence of fresh green leaves and the bright blooms of flowering trees and shrubs.

In early spring–that is to say RIGHT NOW–trees are tapping energy reserves from the previous growing season to activate buds throughout the tree canopy. As the tree streams sap (energy) to the buds, those buds will begin to swell and unfurl into flowers, leaves, and new twigs.

This tree was topped at least once before and resprouted; fresh pruning cuts show where new sprouts were topped. Photo by Ben Thomspon/DNR

Trees require a lot of energy in spring to wake up from dormancy and get growing again. They cannot recoup the energy spent on spring growth until new leaves begin photosynthesizing and producing more food for the tree.

Whacking on your tree in early spring year after year can create a chronic energy deficit and either begin, or accelerate, a spiral of decline. Stress is compounded with each early spring pruning, making your tree more susceptible to other problems.

Early spring is precisely the wrong time of year to prune your trees. Pruning a tree in early spring before budbreak creates five challenges for a tree, all of which are avoidable by holding off with the pruners until later in the year:

  • It robs the tree of energy reserves that have already been used to prepare buds for spring growth.
  • It removes buds that will become leaves, a tree’s food factory, undermining the tree’s ability to recoup lost energy.
  • It may remove flower buds that will become flowers, which not only reduces colorful, fragrant blossoms, but will also decrease fruit produced by a fruit trees.
  • Spring pruning may damage bark through a greater propensity for bark to tear or ‘slip’ at this time of year while sap is rising, especially on young trees.
  • Related to this, sap is rising under high hydraulic pressures and pruning wounds will tend to ‘weep’ more, which may attract fungal and bacterial diseases as well as insects, creating potential pest and disease problems.
This cherry tree will not produce many blooms as a result of improper pruning in early spring. Photo by Ben Thompson/DNR

All of these issues can be made far worse through improper pruning practices such as topping, flush cuts or severe over-pruning.

So relax. Watch the luscious leaves unfurl and expand in all the shades of green. Enjoy the profusion of glorious blossoms. Take in the lovely scents of spring as they rise to meet the warming days. Once the petals have floated to the ground and leaves are in full production mode, then it’s time to break out the pruning tools.

…unless of course you want fruit from your tree. In that case you’ll need to wait until after the harvest.

And if you really enjoy the way trees transform in Spring, then go plant one… think of it as a do-over for all of those poorly pruned trees out there!