Prune Your Pines Now—In Early Fall-

If we’re very busy with fall things like getting kids back to school and thwarting cold weather with insulation, we may have limited time to wire our pines. And yet simply pruning pines in the early fall is the main technique for reining in a leggy pine, and will also greatly enhance the vigor of interior shoots and will likely create new buds.

  • The stronger one prunes, the more buds will form
  • New buds created in the fall will be set up to grow in the spring
  • Spring is not a good time to prune a pine, for the tree will lose time creating new buds and may simply skip that and elongate the buds that are already there
  • No need to prune every year, this is something for the rangy tree that has gotten leggy and long in the tooth (like our example Red Pine below), to create better branch taper, or to shorten the odd branch here and there.

Fall pine pruning brings new buds. New buds brings more ramification. More ramification means shorter needles. In short, in addition to wiring them, periodic pruning back will help improve your pines.

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Japanese Red Pine before fall pruning.

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Red Pine after fall pruning. Long and strong shoots were removed, leaving the moderate energy shoots and the small ones.

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And the pine is immediately put back out into the sun. Without full sun for pines, back budding is simply a pipe dream.

A bit of background on this particular pine: It has a Ponderosa Pine trunk and was grafted with Japanese Red Pine about 7 years ago. The lime green needles are typical of the light and airy foliage of Red Pine. The choice of Red Pine was determined by the wriggly trunk line that this Ponderosa exhibited. It strongly reminded me of the Red Pines I had seen in Japan, and it was during a time I was grafting many pines out of curiosity to see what we can do with smaller Ponderosas.

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A new bud forming on a Red Pine after pruning

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New bud on a Ponderosa

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3-year old buds on a Shore Pine—buds that followed a fall pruning 3 years ago.

To return to the point of this post:

  • Fall pruning creates buds—but for best results don’t prune too late in the fall or budding is unlikely to occur (in a temperate climate). September through early October is a good time to prune.
  • By November the tree won’t have much of a chance to respond to pruning and put out buds before dormancy sets in.

And two final points:

  • We started by saying ‘The stronger one prunes, the more buds will form’—and yet over-pruning will weaken a pine. Leave a reasonable amount of foliage.
  • Pruning back is done at the same time and in concert with another important technique, needle reduction on stronger shoots. If enough fall needle reduction is performed, similar bud production may be seen. But that is a story for another day.

I used to caution users of this blog more frequently in the past, but just to reiterate the main cautionary tale: The statements I make here are limited. They do not mean ‘go out and prune all your pines’, for instance. This may be a technique for some of your trees this year, if they have gotten leggy. Take all of this case by case and with a grain of salt. 

16 Comments

  1. Michael – Does this process hold true for pretty much ALL pines ?
    Or at least all Pines we are likely to encounter here in the U.S. ?
    (I am writing from Wisconsin and am also wondering if that ship may have already sailed for us here…?)
    Thanks
    Kevin

    • LanceMac10 says:

      Don’t see why not, Kevin. And I say you still have time, but not much. You attempting on a Ponderosa? Interesting post, seeing how I use this method and got flamed by a student of Boon. Worked well, in my opinion.

    • crataegus says:

      All pines need periodic pruning. Some, like Ponderosa, might be pruned at styling and infrequently thereafter as the extension is so minimal and you need to use whatever you get; smaller pines need frequent pruning to keep within bounds; stronger pines like JBP need frequent fall pruning because of their vigor. Too many variables to really fill out accurately, but shortening will improve branch taper and will keep trees more compact.

      Yes, location will determine when you do it. Try to leave 45 days before major frosts to give the tree a chance to respond to the pruning.

  2. Ryan Finkbiner says:

    Great post (as I love pines the most!) – so one’s own environment would a determining factor on timing, no? I ask because I suspect Portland would have until some time in October to do this but perhaps not the front range in Colorado…asking for friends (my pines). I am already seeing my pines shed their old needles, and quickly. It’s been particularly hot and dry this summer. Despite adequate watering, my pines seem eager to shed old needles. I will definitely do some pruning this weekend since our summer weather has persisted.

  3. Jamie Brown says:

    Hi Michael, what about other pines like Mugo, Austrian and Shore, can they get pruned at this time?

  4. David Wheeler says:

    thank you Michael for sharing…..

    David

    On Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 3:01 AM Michael Hagedorn wrote:

    > crataegus posted: “If we’re very busy with fall things like getting kids > back to school and thwarting cold weather with insulation, we may have > limited time to wire our pines. And yet simply pruning pines in the early > fall will greatly enhance the vigor of interior shoots a” >

  5. Brad says:

    As usual, thanks for the great advice. Have you tried grafting mugo or other species besides red pine on to ponderosa?

    • crataegus says:

      I have tried black pine on ponderosa as well. I’d like to try scots pine and shore pine—there are several that might be nice. The bark match is the hardest to get.

  6. Brian Schindler says:

    Mike,
    I was unfamiliar with this technique. How long after the pruning were the pictures taken of the tiny buds forming?

    • crataegus says:

      Buds can be seen after a few weeks. This was a few weeks I believe. But any sort of fall pruning on deciduous or pines will often produce back budding, if before dormancy. It is not specific to pines; fall is just the best time to prune pines for this sort of result.

  7. Ralf says:

    Hi Michael, with pruning back and reducing the amount of needles you mean the needles from last year or even older needles? So first plucking the old needles and then shortening the shoot? Right or wrong ☺. Greetings from Germany. Ralf

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, one could do it that way. Pruning back might be easiest done first though, if there is any to do. Years can go by when there is little to do of the pruning part. But needle pulling might be done every year. We are talking a bit abstractly here, though, and there are some good videos out there and blog posts that share this sort of thing. You can find a fair bit on Bonsai Tonight.

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