Prime Time for Pruning

Prune your trees and shrubs to keep them healthy and attractive.

April 6, 2011

Winter is a prime time to pay attention to your trees and shrubs. The leaves are long gone and most woody plants are dormant, making it an ideal time to give them a trim. Right here you'll find out why, what and how to prune.

Renew overgrown shrubs and trees in 3 easy steps.
Well-pruned plants produce more flowers and fruit. And sensible pruning helps trees and shrubs ward off pests and diseases, so you'll have to care for them less. Here's how to prune almost any flowering shrub or fruit tree.

Related: Selecting + Maintaining Hand Pruners


What to Prune in Winter
Pruning in winter—during the dormant season—invigorates many trees and shrubs because it leaves the plants with extra root and energy reserves that will support new growth on the remaining branches. Dormant-season pruning is good for you, too, because you can see the branches more clearly without leaves in the way. And it gives you a reason to go outside on mild winter days. Here is a partial list of shrubs and trees you can prune from winter until the long days of spring start sap flowing again. You'll also find here a short list of trees not to prune during winter.


  • Barberries
  • Glossy abelia
  • Beauty berries
  • Camellias (after they finish blooming)
  • European hornbeam
  • Euonymous
  • Mallow
  • Hydrangeas


  • Bradford and Callory pears
  • Crabapples
  • Poplar
  • Spruce
  • Junipers
  • Sumacs
  • Bald cypress
  • Cherries
  • Plums
  • Honey locust

Don't Prune During Winter
Some trees "bleed" or ooze sap when pruned in late winter or early spring. While oozing sap is not dangerous to the tree, it can make a sticky, dirty mess, especially on parked cars. Prune these trees in summer or fall:

  • Maples
  • Birches
  • Dogwoods
  • Walnuts
  • Elms

The Right Cuts

  • Remove dead or dying branches.
  • Prune out diseased limbs right away. Be sure to cut well below the diseased areas, and don't prune when the plants are wet (water can spread disease). If you prefer to be extra cautious, rinse your tools with a solution of 10 percent bleach in water.
  • Cut back branches that have grown over where you walk or mow so they don't break off.
  • Where you see two branches crossing, prune off the smaller one.
  • Thin branches judiciously to allow sunlight and air into the center of trees and shrubs.

Related: Pruning A Japanese Maple

Pruning Dos and Don'ts
DO cut at an angle that mirrors the branch collar—the furrow of bark where branch and trunk meet. Cut the branch next to the branch collar. If you did it right, a circle of healthy callus will swell around the spot.

DO cut large branches in three parts. First, cut off about one-third of the branch to reduce the weight. Holding up a heavy branch while you prune it off the trunk will break your back and your saw, and tear the trunk's bark. Next, undercut the remaining stub so the trunk bark won't rip when the stub falls free. Last, make the final cut from the top, beside (but not cutting into) the branch collar.

DON'T leave stubs behind—stubs right, inviting insects and disease to move in and attack healthy tissue.

DON'T scalp your trees. A tree with a flat-top looks ridiculous, and it will grow weak new sprouts in place of healthy branches. Cut to the tree's natural shape and let it grow up.

When to Call a Pro
Most pruning work is easy for home gardeners to do. But call a professional arborist about:

  • Any cut you can't make from the ground with pole pruners.
  • Any work—whether you can reach it or not—in a tree near power lines.
  • Storm damage repair where heavy limbs are still attached or hung up in the crown of the tree.

The International Society of Arborists Online has information on tree-care for homeowners and a list of certified arborists searchable by zipcode.

National Arbor Day Foundation.—Reforestation and tree care concerns.

While you're thinking about trees, hoist yourself into the wild world of recreational tree climbing. You can even learn why cats climb trees, why they won't come down, and why cat rescues aren't for amateurs. Check out Tree Climber's International.