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PRUNING GUIDE FOR TREES AND SHRUBS

WHEN TO PRUNE SHRUBS AND TREES

By Catherine Boeckmann

April 17, 2019

Late winter or early spring is the best time time to prune most shrubs and trees—but not all! See our list of which trees and shrubs to prune, and get some general pruning tips for the season.

PRUNING IN WINTER OR EARLY SPRING

Most plants are dormant during the winter, which is typically the best time to make any adjustments to their shape. You want to prune hard at end of winter or very early spring BEFORE any new growth starts!

Pruning in the winter promotes fast regrowth in the spring. It’s also easier to see the shape of deciduous plants in the winter, since their foliage is gone.

PRUNING TIPS

  • Prune on a mild, dry day.

  • Never prune too early as incisions can dry out if the temperature drops below freezing.

  • When pruning, first prune out dead and diseased branches, especially caused by winter’s snow and ice in late winter.

  • Unwanted lower branches on all evergreen shrubs and trees should also be removed in late winter.

  • Then remove the overgrown and smaller branches to increase light and air at the crown of the tree.

  • In general, your goal is to keep the branches that develop or maintain the structure of the tree.

  • Cut branches at the node, the point at which one branch or twig attaches to another.

WHICH SHRUBS TO PRUNE WHEN

Got flowering shrubs? When to prune a shrub depends mostly on when it blooms and whether it flowers on growth produced in the same or previous years.

  • In winter and early spring, prune shrubs that form their flower buds on “new” wood (i.e., wood that will grow this spring). Examples include: abelia, beautyberry, butterfly bush, most clematis, our native smooth hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, potentilla, roses, rose-of-sharon, shrub dogwoods, Japanese spirea, St. Johnswort and summersweet.

  • Wait until after flowers fade to prune spring-flowering shrubs which bloom on “old” wood, i.e., the growth of previous season. Examples are: azalea, beautybush, bridalwreath spirea, spring-blooming clematis, cotoneaster, deutzia, enkianthus, flowering almond, forsythia, mophead hydrangeas, lilacs, mock orange, mountain laurel, ninebark, oakleaf hydrangea, pieris, rhododendron, viburnum, Virginia sweetspire, weigela, wisteria and witch hazel. If you cut them too early, you’ll cut off the buds that would’ve opened this spring! The best time to prune spring-blooming shrubs is right after the spring blooms fade.

WHICH TREES TO PRUNE WHEN

  • Prune Evergreen shrubs (yew, holly, and boxwoods) and evergreen trees (spruce, fir) is late winter or early spring when they are still dormant and before new growth begins. Pines are pruned in early June to early July.

  • Prune shade trees, such as oak, sweetgum, maple, katsura and hornbeam in late winter or early spring.

  • But wait until after bloom to prune spring-flowering trees, such as dogwood, redbud, cherry, pear and magnolia.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a tree has dead branches unless you climb it. For this reason, it may be prudent to hire a tree trimmer to prune any dead trees once every 3 years. To prune trees yourself, look into tree pruners with long-reach poles so that you can keep your own feet safely on the ground.

Common Shrubs and Trees to Prune in Late Winter to Early Spring

WHENHOW

Abelia

Winter to early spring

Maintain a graceful arching form by cutting away some of the oldest stems at ground level. Pinch growing shoots in spring if you want bushier growth.

Azalea

Late winter or during the growing season

Before growth begins for the season, improve the form of the bush by shortening stems that jut out of place. During the growing season, pinch growing shoot tips where you want bushier growth.

Butterfly bush

Late winter

Cut all stems to the ground.

Chaste tree

Late winter or early spring

Evergreen species need little pruning beyond cutting out weak, twiggy, dead, or broken branches.

Crape myrtle

Late winter

Wherever the plant is not totally winter-hardy, cut off winter-killed wood or cut the whole plant to the ground. Little pruning is needed where this plant is cold-hardy.

Hydrangea

Mostly late winter

For smooth hydrangea, cut all stems to the ground. For bigleaf or oakleaf hydrangea, cut stems with old flowers still attached back to fat flower buds.

Some hydrangea are NOT pruned in late winter. To avoid cutting off blooms, see our guide to pruning hydrangea varieties.

Smoke bush

Late winter or early spring, before growth begins

Needs little pruning unless you grow it for its purple leaves rather than for its flowers. In this case, prune severely to stimulate vigorous new growth each spring.