Pruning is probably one of the most confusing topics for new gardeners because there is no single method or timing that suits all situations. But, there are some basic underlying principles that, once you know them, can make it much easier to know whether to snip and clip or leave things alone.
I’ll walk you through some easy Pruning 101 guidelines as well as my own pruning and deadheading calendar which you can adapt for the plants in your garden. This is part of a series with tips for pruning everything including trees, shrubs, vines, and tomatoes.
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Why We Prune Trees, Shrubs, and Vines
- Plant health and safety | Removal of dead, damaged, or diseased, or overlapping branches, buds, or roots, as well as suckers and water sprouts assists with plant health (strength, air circulation, sun reach, and pest and disease resistance) and appearance.
- Control size and shape | Pruning can improve the plant structure in addition to allowing better air and light conditions.
- Stimulate new growth | Pruning encourages new growth.
Always prune for a specific reason, not because you think you should do it.
Wait. Should You Prune?
When I started gardening, I had the impression that pruning was simply a necessary annual chore. It was only when I read up on it that I realized that while some pruning (and deadheading) can serve specific beneficial purposes, it may not often be necessary, and, without intention, could be detrimental.
The one type of pruning that has no set timetable is the removal of dead, damaged, and diseased branches. These are either lifeless or may cause further damage to the plant if they are left in place, so get rid of them any time using anvil pruner, loppers, or a tree saw for removal.
All other pruning has best times of year, and this depends on the species and its budding cycle.
Pruning Principles 101
In general, the principle is, prune when the plant is asleep (dormant) and does not have buds.
The best time for pruning most trees, shrubs, and vines (if they do need pruning) is late winter and early spring unless they are early spring bloomers and already have buds.
The second-best time is summer. After flowering is the best time for spring bloomers.
Avoid fall. Pruning stimulates new growth and you don’t want this with winter on its way.
Dead, damaged, and diseased branches can be removed any time.
Trees and Shrubs
- Deciduous trees, evergreens, and non-coniferous shrubs handle pruning best in mid-winter when the sap is not running. Avoid the heavy sap flow time in spring for trees like walnut and maple (and other trees you can tap for syrup).
- The key for pruning flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs is to know when the plant fruits and whether it produces the fruit on old or new wood/growth.
The goal when pruning is to remove the old (and no longer useful or flowering wood) while protecting whatever parts are creating new flower and fruit buds.
Other Garden Perennials
- Many flowering perennials are best cut back (removing old, dead growth) in spring just as the new growth starts poking up.
While you could do this in the fall, you would be removing valuable winter food and habitat for wildlife (from microbes to birds and more), so wait if you can.
- Trimming herbaceous growth like leaves on a boxwood hedge is done during the growing season (ending weeks before first frost).
Best Tool for Pruning
Bypass pruners are the best tool for pruning smaller, living branches on trees, shrubs, and vines. These provide a nice, clean cut without damaging any plant tissue. Be sure to clean your tools before use and between plants. I use rubbing alcohol and then heat the blade briefly with a lighter.
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How Much is Too Much
Unless the plant material is dead, damaged, or diseased—in which case you remove all of it—the general rule is to never remove more than one third of the entire branch or plant.
I save dead branches in a branch crib, allowing them to decay and return to the earth. The birds love this.
Where to Cut
Research before you cut! Where you cut depends on what you are trying to accomplish. This could be removal of crossing branches (remove them at the base) or encouraging lateral growth (remove the terminal buds).
The possibilities are too numerous to list here. Look up your specific plant and follow instructions you trust. And, the more you look over your plants, the better you will get at recognizing what should be trimmed and why.
As a general rule, the best buds to keep are those facing outward, so new growth will also grow outward instead of inward, congesting air flow and light.
Work in Sections
If you are removing heavier branches, work in sections, taking outer pieces first. This will make the job safer and avoid tearing the plant when the final cut is made.
Empress of Dirt Pruning and Deadheading Calendar
Winter (while plants are dormant)
Remove dead, diseased or damaged limbs, suckers, overlapping or leggy branches.
- Deciduous, evergreen, and fruit trees.
- Shrubs grown for foliage (barberry, burning bush, euonymus…).
- Bush berries (blueberry, gooseberry, currants-oldest stems only).
Early Spring (some new growth may be starting to appear)
This is my main garden clean up time for the year.
- Summer-flowering perennials (daisies, coneflowers, black-eyed Susan’s…) – cut down last year’s growth.
- Shrubs that bloom on new wood (Annabelle hydrangeas- see the Hydrangea Pruning Guide here) – catch them before buds form
- DO NOT PRUNE shrubs that bloom on old wood (previous year’s growth) or you won’t get any flowers. Wait until they flower and then prune if necessary before new buds form.
- Ornamental grasses – remove old, dead growth.
- Roses – remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches only. Careful not to remove any new buds.
- Flowering perennials and annuals – deadhead (remove finished blooms) to encourage a second round of flowers.
- Trim and shape greenery like boxwood hedges up until 6 weeks before average first frost.
- Once-a-year blooming climbing and old garden roses – deadhead after blooming is finished.
- Clematis – look up which type you have and use this pruning guide.
Late Summer / Early Fall (after flowering, before new buds form)
- Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches only.
- Hold off on deadheading perennials: wildlife including birds depend on perennial seed pods and old growth for winter food and habitat.
- TIP: Put ribbons on any branches you need to prune when trees and shrubs are dormant in the winter.
- Cane Berries (raspberries and blackberries) – remove two-year-old canes soon after they finish bearing.
Remove dead and decaying parts with minimal impact on the next buds, bloom, or fruit.
Be sure to google pruning instructions for your specific plants to learn the best tools to use and exactly how and where to cut.
Want to know which pruners work best? Here’s the guide you need.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛