How to Prune Trees and Plants

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Most plants benefit from regular, annual pruning. Though the task of trimming beautiful foliage is hard for home gardeners to swallow, pruning keeps plants healthy and encourages fresh, 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 for next season. Trees and shrubs that bloom in the spring start setting new buds as soon as the old flowers have fallen, making this a crucial time to move in with the shears. And still, other plants need continual trimming and deadheading to remain vigorous and in flower. Pruning is an ongoing garden task. It gets less confusing and intimidating the more you do it. In fact, you'll learn there are even certain pruning practices you can completely ignore.

when to prune your plants
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When to Prune Trees and Plants

Figuring out when to prune your plants and trees can be confusing, but luckily, pruning at the wrong time is rarely fatal. True—off-cycle pruning may result in fewer flowers or fruit, but it usually won’t harm the plant in the long run. However, never prune too late in the growing season. Doing so will encourage tender and susceptible new growth that will die back with the onset of winter weather.

Most fruit trees and berry plants need to be pruned while they are dormant. You usually get one chance to set buds for next season’s crop, so particular care needs to be taken during the winter or early spring. Failure to do so will result in the plant's steady decline, as it will send out suckers, directing energy away from fruiting branches. The exception to this rule is spring-flowering trees and shrubs that need to be pruned soon after their flowers fade, in late spring and early summer. Most perennial plants need to be cut back entirely either before or after the growing season and need regular pruning, shearing, or deadheading all season long.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 1 to 2 hours, depending on the state of the plant
  • Total Time: 6 months or longer

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

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

Instructions

Pruning Fruit Trees

If you are growing a tree for its fruit, make pruning a high priority. Heading cuts concentrate each branch's energy and encourage it to produce more fruit the following season. Thinning cuts allow you to remove unruly suckers and dead limbs, inhibiting the infestation of disease and pests on older fruit-producing branches.

  1. In the winter or early spring, inspect your tree to see where it needs cutting back. Take note of any branches that have grown over two feet during the season. They will unlikely bear fruit.
  2. Decide which branches to keep and which to remove, based on health, shape, growth pattern, and personal preference.
  3. Use loppers or a handsaw to remove dead branches and any new branches that may divert the energy away from the fruit-bearing ones. Branches growing downward should be the first to go.
  4. With your loppers, make heading cuts just tree-side of the old growth on a branch. Continue around the tree to shape it, noting that each cut will increase the number of lateral branches.

Pruning Berries

Raspberry and blackberry bushes in particular benefit from removing all weak and broken canes to allow sunlight to reach the other parts of the bush. Make sure to wear protective clothing when pruning however, as a berry bush's thorns can painfully attack.

  1. During October through March, remove any weak, dead, or diseased canes with pruning shears.
  2. Thin remaining canes to 10 to 12 per bush by cutting unruly canes at their base.
  3. Trim the height of the entire bush so that 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 moving in soon after will yield the showiest display. After a couple of years pruning, you'll get into a rhythm that produces gorgeous blooms.

  1. During the first growing season, observe your spring, summer, or ever bloomer and note when it blooms.
  2. Once 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. Using your shears, make heading cuts to shape the tree or bush. 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 throughout the growing cycle can create a perfectly manicured perennial bed.

  1. In the fall or early spring, use your shears to cut back all dead growth to the ground.
  2. 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. During the growing season, regularly pinch or cut off spent flowers just below the bloom to maintain appearance.
  4. Trim vigorous, no blooming growth with shears throughout the season.

Plant Pruning Tips

If you haven't been pruning your fruit-bearing bushes regularly, you may need to do some rejuvenation pruning which involves removing all dead and overgrown growth. You can approach it with a hard pruning and cut the entire plant back 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. Check the recommendations for your variety, and still prune the newer varieties to shape them and to encourage new growth.

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

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. Doing so (when trying to keep its size in check) may stress and distort the tree. For this reason, choose a smaller, dwarf evergreen if you have limited space.

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