Pruning – What, When, Where and How

pruning-rosesPruning is not just for expert rose tenders or expensive tree trimmers. Electric hedge equipment makes bushes temporarily look nice and neat, but “trimming the bushes” is actually a lot more work than pruning, and has much less pleasing long-term results.

I used to only be a trimmer. Remembering the best time to do it was hard so whenever my shrubs started to look untidy, I just buzzed off the tops. For a little while they looked good, but I had to do it often and then clean up the huge mess. It was a chore. After several years I began to wonder why they’d gotten so top heavy, woody at the base and rather ugly to look at.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about what it really means to prune. Now I’m a pruner. It is little more complicated than a simple shave, but with some understanding of the fundamentals, anyone can prune once or twice a year and be pleased with the results.


shutterstock_29329072Pruning is NOT
— It might help us first to clarify what we mean by “pruning.” Let me start by talking about what pruning is NOT.

Pruning is not shearing. (what I was doing: randomly cutting off the ends of branches)
Pruning is not just shaping. (focusing on the superficial look of the plant)
Pruning is not like giving your plant a “hair cut” and it does not involve the use of hedge trimmers or chain saw.

Pruning IS – Pruning is part of maintenance. It is being intentional and selective about removing part of a plant. Pruning can be thought of as “wounding” the plant, but if done correctly it does not cause harm. Rather than “heal,” a plant “seals” (grows tissue to cover over the opening).

Many parts of plants can be pruned in different ways: branches and shoots are the primary focus; roots, buds, fruits and seed pods are also legitimate candidates for specific types and purposes.

Benefits of Pruning – Why bother? Well, pruning provides many positives for plants and people:

Increase safety and improve health – Dead, diseased and damaged branches can be dangerous if they fall. Removing those parts can also quicken healing and limit disease spread or insect infestation. Thinning trees and bushes can also make more room for light to shine on more of the plant and improve growth, flowering or fruit production. It can also allow more air circulation.

Maintain pleasing size – Left untended, plants can get out of control. Pruning helps regulate the size of a plant which can keep them from overtaking a landscape or home feature. It also makes harvesting fruit trees more manageable. You can also remove unwanted shade by pruning.


Enjoy more flowers and better quality fruit – Good pruning done right means your plants may flower better and your fruit quality can improve.

Achieve desired appearance – Some plants are grown for their shape and must be pruned regularly to maintain it. Once formed incorrectly it can be difficult to fix.

Produce stronger plants, earlier and easier – It’s easier to prune a young plant when its branches are small, and it is possible to train main branches to produce stronger trees.

Revitalize old foliage – If you have old bushes and trees that have gotten out of shape and have dead or dying parts, pruning can bring them back to life.


If you prune at the right time, you’ve accomplished half the challenge! Timing is so important in pruning: the right time means more growth, the wrong time means less growth. Pay attention to the seasons and also be aware of what each species needs, especially for fruit trees and shrubs. But don’t be intimated. Here are some simple facts:

All Year

You can do light pruning and remove dead wood any time of year. Just don’t get carried away.


shutterstock_123982726Think “before bud break” in general because for most plants, bud break or leaf extension (when plants start to emerge and grow) is the most stressful time. Pruning is stressful, too, so it needs to be done during the least stressful period for plants and that is in late winter/early spring dormancy.

For burst of spring growth – If you want a burst of new growth in the spring for your bushes and trees, this is the best time to prune, while the plant is still dormant. Wait until the coldest part of winter is over. Some tree species’ sap may flow, or “bleed,” and that’s normal.

For summer-flowering trees – If you desire your mid-to-late summer flowering trees and shrubs to flourish, prune them in winter, or early spring.


For more flowers on spring-blooming trees – If you want to enhance the flowers of spring-blooming trees, prune them when their flowers die away.


For shape – If you want to direct how branches grow, you need to slow the development of a tree or branch. Do this by pruning after the seasonal growth is finished. My Korean Dwarf Lilac is a nice round circle of green because I have faithfully done this kind of pruning each month through the growing seasons.

For correction – If you want to correct the growth of a defective branch or a low-hanging limb and how they affect the overall look of your tree or shrub, now is easier to observe those problems and a good time to prune, too.


This is the time NOT to prune, except to trim away dead or diseased parts. This is the time when wounds heal slower and there is an increased chance of disease. Pruning during waning growth season can remove important parts needed for winter.


Understanding Plant Growth So You Can Manage Plant Growth

shutterstock_76032325All the new growth that bursts forth in spring is actually being driven by chemical changes in the plants stems. Have you ever noticed the way one main stem seems to always stick up right through the top of plants? The bud at the top of that stem is actually kind of like a bully. It is determined to be the first to the light, and it actually sends a hormone running down to keep the other buds further below from growing.

If you remove that top bud, then you stop the hormone from being released in the plant, and the other buds will grow. There’s of course a lot more to that and if you want to research it more, look up “apical dominance.”

This is one of the basic foundations of pruning. Trees and bushes that grow tall and not bushy have “apical dominance,” or their top bud (the “apex”) is bullying—dominating—the growth. To create bushy trees, remove the top bud (called a “terminal bud”) and the buds on the sides (called “lateral buds”) will grow out and become branches or more stems and leaves.


Tools to Use

Make sure you choose high quality, sharp, clean tools for your job.

shutterstock_79055110Hand tools can be used for stems less than ¾” diameter. I like bypass pruners best because they open wide and are usually quite sturdy and make clean cuts. Anvil pruners are less expensive, but then can be frustrating to use and tend to smash stems.

For thicker branches up to 2” loping shears are good to use because their long handles give more leverage.

When the branch is too thick for those scissor-like tools, a pruning saw will do the job. There are many versions of these saws, you may want to purchase a fine-tooth version for small branches and a coarse-tooth saw for thicker branches.

Types of Cuts

There are different ways to prune depending on what you want to do and what plants you’re pruning. The best types of cuts are slanted at 45 degree angles. Don’t make a flush cut or straight horizontal cut because these do more harm than good. Three common cuts include: pinching removes top aggressive, vertical growth; heading removes part of a shoot; thinning takes away the whole shoot.

shutterstock_1520831Pinching – This works for flowers and some vegetables. Simply pinch off the top bud with your fingers to encourage the plant to grow out rather than up.

Heading – This entails making a cut further down the shoot with a pruning tool. You’re still removing the terminal (top) bud, but doing it by cutting further back down the stem, close to where it joins another stem. Make the cut back to right above the leaf to stimulate growth below the cut. Heading is great for plants like boxwood that you desire to be dense, thick, low growth. Heading cuts sometimes result in clusters of shoots you may not want. You may need to thin instead.

Thinning – When you thin out branches, you remove an entire stem or branch from the plant. The purpose of thinning is to reduce the bulkiness rather than stimulate a lot of growth. You may need to use a larger tool for this type of cut.

We can’t possibly cover all there is on the subject of pruning in one post here, so I encourage you to study your plants and continue to research how to tend them. And hopefully, with these pruning basics, you feel less intimidated about the process and practice of pruning.

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