When to Prune Trees and Shrubs

Pruning trees and shrubs tends to be an intimidating process for many people, but it doesn’t need to be intimidating at all. Knowing when to prune to trees and shrubs can take some of the guesswork and concern out of this garden chore. Observing a few simple pruning tips will also make the job easier on you and your plants.

In general, it is best to prune plants while they are dormant in the winter. This avoids shocking the plant. If a plant is in desperate need of heavy pruning, it should be done while the plant is dormant. But if a plant just needs a quick trim to maintain a pleasing form, the rules change. See the chart below for the proper time to prune specific plants.

Avoid heavy pruning in the spring while a plant’s leaves are expanding. If a little light pruning is necessary at this time, go ahead and prune away, but this isn’t the time for drastic pruning.

Dead limbs and branches may be pruned off at any time. If you’re unsure whether or not a branch is truly dead, scratch the bark with a fingernail. A living branch will appear green beneath the bark.

If a plant flowers in the spring, it can be pruned immediately after it has finished blooming for the season. Plants that bloom in the early spring set their flower buds in the fall, and winter or early spring pruning of these plants would reduce the amount of spring blooms for them.

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Shrubs that bloom on new growth in the summer or fall should be pruned in the winter. This will encourage the plant to put out plenty of new growth the following spring, and more new growth means more blossoms to enjoy.

Always disinfect your pruning shears before moving from one plant to another to avoid spreading any disease amongst plants. A quick dip in rubbing alcohol works well as a disinfectant.

Below you’ll find a list showing the best time to prune some common landscape plants.

Flowering Almond - Prune in summer, after blooming

Arborvitae - Prune anytime from late summer through late winter

Hetz Midget Arborvitae

Azaleas - Clip off spent flower clusters and prune immediately after blooming

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Mountain Ash - Generally requires little pruning, may be pruned late fall to early spring

Barberry - Prune after flowering

Barberry

Beautyberry - Prune while dormant, late fall through early spring. Blooms on new wood. In Zone 5 it can be pruned back to 6” in late winter

Boxwood - Prune late fall through early summer

Bradford Pear - Prune in early spring while dormant

Bridal Wreath Spirea - Prune in late spring to early summer, after blooming

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Butterfly Bush - Remove spent flower spikes to encourage more blooms. Prune in late winter through early spring while dormant

Black Knight Butterfly Bush

Camellia - Prune after flowering, and in early summer to encourage branching. Pruning too late in the summer and fall will remove next year’s flower buds

Clematis - Timing depends on variety. Spring-bloomers are pruned in late spring, after blooming. Summer and fall bloomers need little pruning, but can be pruned to shape while dormant in winter.

Cotoneaster - Prune while dormant in winter if necessary

Edible Crabapple - Prune in late winter while dormant

Flowering Crabapple - Prune as needed after flowering, but before flower buds form in June for the following year

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Crape Myrtle - Prune in late winter

Deutzia - Prune in spring immediately after flowering

Flowering Dogwood - Prune in early spring while dormant

Red Twig Dogwood - For best red color, prune all stems to the ground in early spring every 2-3 years. When not fully cut back, 25% of oldest stems may be removed in early spring to encourage new growth.

Euonymus - Prune deciduous varieties late fall through early spring, Evergreen varieties late fall through early summer

Forsythia - Prune immediately after blooming

Kumson Forsythia

Honeysuckle - Prune in early spring while dormant

Hydrangea - Prune spring-blooming varieties after blooms fade, summer-blooming varieties late fall through winter while dormant

Nikko Blue Hydrangea

Juniper - Prune late fall through late winter, while dormant

Lilacs - Prune in late spring to early summer, after blooming

Magnolia - Prune in late spring to early summer, after blooming

Mock orange - Prune in midsummer, after blooming

Mountain Laurel - Prune in late spring to early summer, after blooming

Nandina - Prune in late winter

Photinia - Prune late fall through spring

Pussywillow - Prune mid spring to early summer, after blooming

Pyracantha - Blooms on old wood, prune in early summer

Quince - Prune midspring through midsummer, cut back to the ground in fall

Rhododendron - Prune in late spring to early summer, after blooming

Cunningham White Rhododendron

Roses - Timing varies by variety. Roses that bloom on last year’s canes are pruned after flowering. Roses that bloom on new growth are pruned in spring when leaf buds begin to swell

Sandcherry - Prune immediately after blooming

Serviceberry - Late spring to early summer, after blooming

Smoke Tree - Prune in late fall to late winter, while dormant

Spirea - Prune spring-blooming varieties in early summer, after blooming. Prune summer-blooming varieties in midwinter, while dormant

Weigela - Prune late spring to early summer, after blooming

Java Red Weigela

Wisteria - Remove spent flowers after blooming. Prune new growth in late summer to shape plant.

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