Learn The Basics Of Tree + Shrub Pruning

It's important to trim woody plants to keep them healthy and attractive, but knowing when + how is key.

March 2, 2016
fall pruning

Well-pruned plants produce more flowers and fruit. And sensible pruning helps trees and shrubs ward off pests and diseases, so you won't have to care for them as much. Winter can be a prime time for pruning. The leaves are long gone and most woody plants are dormant (though you should Stop Pruning In The Fall if that has been your habit). Here's how to prune almost any flowering shrub or fruit tree.

Related: Selecting + Maintaining Hand Pruners


Winter Pruning

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. But not every plant should be pruned in winter. Here's a list of those that should: 

Glossy abelia
Beauty berries
Camellias (after they finish blooming)
European hornbeam

Bradford and Callory pears
Bald cypress
Honey locust

Related: Why People Are Obsessed With Tree Blossoms

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Summer + Fall Pruning

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:


How To Prune:

1. Remove dead or dying branches.

2. 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.

3. Cut back branches that have grown over where you walk or mow so they don't break off.

4. Where you see two branches crossing, prune off the smaller one.

5. Thin branches judiciously to allow sunlight and air into the center of trees and shrubs.

Related: Pruning A Japanese Maple

Dos + Don'ts

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.

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, and any storm damage repair where heavy limbs are still attached or hung up in the crown of the tree.