How to Prune Trees and Plants

person pruning plants in a garden

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Overview
  • Total Time: 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $0

Although the task of trimming beautiful foliage is sometimes hard for gardeners to swallow, regular pruning keeps most plants healthy and encourages new growth. But when and what to prune depends on the type of plant and the climate you live in. For instance, flowering and fruiting plants prefer to be cut back in late winter or early spring to spur a hearty crop. Trees and shrubs that bloom in the spring start setting new buds as soon as the old flowers have fallen, so it's crucial to prune before those new buds come in. And many other plants need continual trimming to remain vigorous.

when to prune your plants
The Spruce

When to Prune Trees and Plants

Figuring out when to prune your plants can be confusing, but luckily pruning at the wrong time is rarely fatal. Off-cycle pruning might result in fewer flowers or fruit, but it usually won’t harm the plant in the long run. However, avoid pruning too late in the growing season. Doing so will encourage tender new growth that will die in winter weather.

Most fruit trees and berry plants need to be pruned while they are dormant. Failure to do so will result in the plant's steady decline, as it will send out suckers that direct energy away from fruiting branches. The exception to this rule is spring-flowering trees and shrubs. These need to be pruned soon after their flowers fade in late spring and early summer.

Furthermore, most perennial plants need to be cut back entirely either before or after the growing season. And they require regular pruning and deadheading all season long.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Gardening gloves
  • Protective clothing
  • Hand pruners
  • Loppers
  • Shears
  • Handsaw

Materials

  • Overgrown, mature plant

Steps to Make It

Pruning Fruit Trees

If you are growing a tree for its fruit, make pruning a high priority. Heading cuts, or cutting the ends of branches, concentrate each branch's energy and encourage it to produce more fruit the following season. Thinning cuts, or removing entire limbs, allow you to take out unruly suckers and dead or diseased limbs.

  1. Inspect Your Tree

    In the late winter or early spring, inspect your tree to see where it needs pruning. Take note of any branches that have grown over 2 feet. They will be unlikely to bear fruit again.

  2. Identify Which Branches to Keep and Remove

    Decide which branches to keep and which to remove based on health, shape, growth pattern, and personal preference. Sometimes it's helpful to mark branches for pruning with pieces of string as you're observing the whole tree.

  3. Remove Unwanted Branches

    Use loppers or a handsaw to remove dead or diseased branches, as well as any unnecessary new branches that might divert energy from the fruit-bearing ones. Branches growing downward should be the first to go.

  4. Make Heading Cuts

    With your loppers, make heading cuts on old growth around the tree to shape it. Each cut will increase the number of lateral branches.

Pruning Berries

Raspberry and blackberry bushes in particular benefit from removing all the weak and broken canes (or stems) to allow sunlight to reach more of the bush. Make sure to wear protective clothing when pruning berries, as the thorns can be painful.

  1. Remove Unwanted Canes

    During October through March, remove any weak, dead, or diseased canes with pruning shears.

  2. Thin the Canes

    Thin the remaining canes to 10 to 12 per bush by cutting unruly canes at their base.

  3. Trim the Height

    Trim the height of the entire bush, so it's no more than five feet tall.

Pruning Flowering Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

In general, you can prune flowering plants at any time. However, paying attention to when your plant blooms and pruning soon after will yield the showiest floral display.

  1. Note Plant Bloom Time

    During the First Growing Season, Note When Your Plant Blooms

  2. Remove Unwanted Branches

    Once the blooms fade, use your shears or loppers to remove any dead, weak, or diseased branches.

  3. Remove Suckers at the Base of the Tree or Plant

    These are unlikely to produce hearty blooms.

  4. Shape the Plant

    Using your shears, make heading cuts to shape the plant. Cut just beyond a healthy bud, and angle the cut at 45 degrees.

Pruning Perennials

Perhaps the most labor-intensive plants to prune are non-woody perennials, but the task is pretty straightforward. Regular pruning and deadheading (pinching off spent flowers) throughout the growing cycle can create a perfectly manicured perennial bed.

  1. Cut Back on Dead Growth

    In the fall or early spring, use your shears to cut back all dead growth to the ground.

  2. Start Training Your Plant

    As the plant grows, train it by cutting off or digging up parts that become unruly. Dug up perennial plants can be replanted or gifted to other gardeners.

  3. Pinch Flowers Below the Bloom

    During the growing season, regularly pinch or cut off spent flowers just below the bloom to maintain appearance.

  4. Trim Growth

    Trim Vigorous, Non-Blooming Growth With Shears Throughout the Season

Working With Evergreens

Many gardeners leave their evergreen trees alone, which is probably a good idea. Evergreen trees don’t really need to be pruned, and doing so can stress or distort the tree. For this reason, choose a dwarf evergreen if you have limited space.

That said, there are times when evergreen bushes need to be cut into a hedgerow or trimmed to branch out and become fuller. This requires mindful, minimal trimming during the height of the growing season.

Plant Pruning Tips

If you haven't been pruning your fruit-bearing bushes regularly, you might need to do some rejuvenation pruning to remove anything that's overgrown or dead. You can cut back the entire plant to 6 to 12 inches of growth (basically starting over), or you can prune gradually over time.

Unlike other fruit trees, peach trees should not be pruned while dormant. This delicate tree can suffer dieback when pruned in the winter. Pruning a peach tree during dormancy can also result in a less cold-hardy tree moving forward.

The popularity of hydrangea plants has spurred many different varieties, some that bloom on both old and new wood. For this reason, traditional pruning techniques have become outdated for certain types. So be sure to check the recommendations for your variety.

How and when to prune perennial plants is something you learn as you acquire gardening experience. It’s the type of knowledge that varies from region to region, and it’s part of the pleasure of gardening.