Go with the snow. It’s a good thing.

The view is clear when you can see a tree silhouetted in its underwear.

Let’s let go of our moaning. Snow in January is a good friend to the Toronto gardener. First, it’s precipitation; a long, cool drink for the garden. It’s an insulating blanket of snow for our tender plants, especially when the temps dip below normal, as they have in January 2011. But snow also offers a distraction-free backdrop that shows what’s really happening with your woody plants.

Take the young Japanese maple above, Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’. I did, last July (the worst possible month to plant a tree, especially a fancy one like this… but it was on sale, and I had my reasons.) The best way to ensure good form on a new tree is to select it carefully at the nursery. As this was a sale item, its shape might have been less than ideal. My snapshot tells me I have some pruning to do.

I recently read a good article on pruning young trees by Don Burnett in the March 2010 issue of Gardeners Central Magazine [Update: in 2016, the magazine is no longer being published]. This newish version of Gardeners West Magazine (there are versions for prairie and east-coast gardeners, too) isn’t flashy by any means, but it has good, practical gardening advice for home gardeners. Some articles, such as the one on pruning, are useful coast to coast. Others are regional. You can buy/download a back issue of the magazine through the link above. (I have no affiliation with the publisher.)

Burnett stresses the importance of establishing good structure – while the tree is young and the branches are small – to avoid problems later. We’ve all seen the amputated look that comes about when mature branches are pruned to correct a tree for size. It looks ugly, and the large cut opens the tree to disease.

In my tree, I can see crossing branches to fix, at least one with an undesirable kink, possible competing leaders, and a few branches that will grow into the pathway of my, well, my pathway. As it’s late winter, I can take out my sharp pruners now while the tree is dormant to make gentle corrections to enhance the natural shape of my tree.

Look at your trees before they deck themselves out in those distracting leaves and flowers. If yours isn’t best pruned at this time of year, tie a ribbon around the branches you think might benefit from removal, and cut them back when the time is right. You’ll thank yourself for it later.


  1. One of my fellow master gardeners is a wonderful aesthetic pruner. I always refer her to new clients when we include a Japanese Maple in the plan. She agrees with you, and tells homeowners that to get the best results, she needs to prune new trees both in leaf and out.

  2. I am not complaining about the snow. After our dry season last year I treasure every sort of precipitation – and the insulating blanket because we have had some very cold temperatures.

  3. The ribbon is a great idea. I always forget which branches of the yellowwood need pruning by the time summer rolls around. Here's another benefit of snow – when it's overcast, snow makes the day brighter. :^)

  4. A good-idea-post.

    I had a new roof put on my shed a couple of days ago. In the process a branch was torn from my Spanish Broom tree. It already had a wobbly shape. Now it has a scraggly one. I'm looking forward to the bright yellow flowers which will cover it up. It doesn't look good in underwear!

    How deep is the snow in the picture?


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