Pruning 101: The Clean-Cut Facts About Pruning

Improve the Health and Visual Appeal of Your Garden

By Benjamin Kilbride
April 23, 2019
Lilac Flower purple

Do you know how to prune correctly? Pruning directly benefits the health and visual appeal of shrubs and trees. Learn how and why to do it right.

Why is it Important to Prune? 

Pruning isn’t just for shape and style. Pruning helps to manage the growth and structure of shrubs and trees, removes dead or diseased stems and branches, and encourages the development of flowers, fruit, and new foliage. 

What Should be Pruned?

When pruning, the basic rule of thumb is to prune less instead of more. It’s easy enough to make another cut, but not so simple to reattach branches!

  • Dead, Dying, Broken, or Diseased Branches:
    • Any branches or stems that are dead, dying, diseased, or broken should be pruned. This can be done at any time of year—and the sooner, the better. At the very least, prune branches or stems before the plant produces new growth in spring so that it doesn’t waste energy on damaged areas. Removing dead or dying branches will not only help to prevent the spread of disease to other parts of the plant, but it will also help the tree or shrub to focus on producing new, healthy growth.
  • Branches that Cross or Grow Inwards:
    • Remove branches that are growing across each other, or at least prune one of the offending limbs. Branches that touch can chafe and create an access point for insects and disease.
    • Similarly, branches that grow inward toward the central stem or trunk are likely to end up chafing against other parts of the plant, so it’s best to prune them. It’s also important to allow some space for air to reach the center of the plant; if a tree or shrub becomes too grown in on itself, it is at greater risk of rot and other fungal diseases that thrive on humid, stagnant air.
  • Suckers and Water Sprouts:
    • Suckers—long shoots that grow out of the base of a tree or from its roots—should be pruned as close to the source as possible. Like the name entails, suckers are an energy drain on trees.
    • Prune water sprouts—shoots growing straight up from the main branches of shrubs and trees—as soon as you see them. Removing water sprouts helps to guide the shape and growth pattern of a tree or shrub.
  • Young Trees and Shrubs:
    • Young woody plants should be pruned in a way that encourages them to produce a balanced, open structure of stems or branches. Watch out for crossed or inward-growing stems or branches especially—it’s better to “nip them in the bud” while they’re still easy to reach and cut!
  • Old Trees and Shrubs:
    • Older trees and shrubs will benefit greatly from pruning, as it will encourage them to produce new, vigorous growth that results in similarly healthy flowers and fruit.
    • Shrubs with multiple stems, like viburnum, lilac, and forsythia, can take a harder pruning. Remove up to a third of old stems to encourage new growth.

Pruning correctly
Always cut back to a lateral branch, bud, or the main trunk when pruning.

How to Prune

It’s simple: Regardless of whether you’re pruning a shrub or tree, always cut back to a bud, a lateral branch, or the trunk or main stem. Cutting haphazardly in the middle of a branch or stem will just result in it dying back, which encourages disease and decay.

Generally, follow these guidelines:

  • Cut back to a bud that faces out, away from the central stem or trunk. New growth will emerge from this bud, so you want it to grow outward, not inward.
  • Leave about ½ inch between the bud and where you make your cut.
  • Cut at an angle that slants down and away from the bud in order to discourage water from running towards the bud. 
  • When pruning larger branches, cut back to a lateral branch—i.e., where a smaller branch emerges from the branch you are pruning.

Choose the Right Pruning Tools

Hand pruners, loppers, shears, trimmers—there are a number of different types of pruning tools out there and each has its purpose, but the options can get a little overwhelming. Here’s how to pick the right tool for the job:

  • Hand Pruners — Next to the trowel, hand pruners are a gardener’s best friend. They’re small and light enough to be carried in a single hand or a pocket, but sharp enough to easily tackle any (small) stem that stands in their way. Use hand pruners to make precision cuts on small, soft stems and branches.

    • There are two main types of pruners: anvil and bypass. Bypass pruners have overlapping blades, like scissors, while anvil pruners have a single blade that presses against a flat edge. Anvil pruners are prone to partially crushing the stem rather than cutting cleanly through it, which can expose the plant to disease and pests. For this reason, bypass pruners are recommended. 
  • Loppers — Once you’re dealing with branches greater than about ¼ inch in diameter, hand pruners may no longer make the cut. Rather than risk crushing or making an uneven cut, upgrade to loppers. Loppers are essentially larger, heavy-duty pruners with long handles that allow for greater leverage and thus, more power. They’re perfect for cutting thicker branches, stems, or roots that are too tough for hand pruners, while still getting a clean, precise cut.

  • Pruning Saws — Contrary to popular belief, a saw is not always an extreme measure. Pruning saws, with their curved blades and sharp teeth, are specially designed to make clean cuts through branches that hand pruners and loppers can’t handle. They’re great for when you need to cut out large parts of a shrub or remove thicker branches from a tree. Plus, they also come in the form of the pole saw—essentially a saw on a stick—for when you need to reach higher branches and don’t want to risk using a ladder.

    • The only downside to using a pole saw is that it takes a lot of physical exertion to use it for long periods of time. To make things a lot easier, we recommend adding something like the ECHO Power Pruner to your collection.
  • Hedge Shears — Traditional hedge shears, which look similar to giant scissors, are best suited to shaping evergreen hedges and topiary. Because their large blades make broad cuts, they should not be used for pruning most other shrubs and trees. 

  • Hedge Trimmers — Like shears, motorized hedge trimmers are used to shape broad areas of evergreen hedges and shrubs. They use sharp, reciprocating blades to make clean cuts more quickly, efficiently, and over larger areas than traditional shears. If the hedge you’re trying to trim is too large to tackle with traditional shears, we recommend using an extendable hedge trimmer, like this one from ECHO.

ECHO hedge trimmer
Don’t fall! This is the perfect extendable hedge trimmer to trim hedges without having to balance precariously on a ladder!

While it’s tempting to spring for the cheapest pruning tools, in the end it will save you time and energy if you use equipment made from high-quality materials. Sharp blades make cleaner cuts, which prevents unnecessary damage to your trees and shrubs and makes pruning a whole lot easier for you.

For this reason, we recommend checking out ECHO’s Pro Attachment Series™, which contains a selection of high-quality equipment from extendable hedge trimmers to a motorized pruning saw.

Keep Pruning Tools Clean

Once you have the right tools for the job, it’s important to keep them clean—not only to extend the life of the tools, but to protect trees and shrubs from disease. Before and after pruning, sterilize your pruning equipment with rubbing alcohol to kill any disease-causing microbes that may have come into contact with the tools during use.

To keep your tools in tip-top shape, consider using a blade cleaner—such as ECHO’s Red Armor™ Blade Cleaner and Lubricant—which will keep pruning equipment clean and protect it from corrosion. 

When is the Best Time to Prune?

You can remove dead, dying, or broken branches as soon as you notice them, but when it comes to pruning for shape or size, we recommended following these guidelines:

  • Prune flowering trees and shrubs that bloom on new wood (this season’s growth) in the early spring, while the plant is still dormant. Some shrubs that bloom on new wood include summersweet (Clethra spp.), bush honeysuckle (Diervilla spp.), and some types of hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata, H. arborescens). Pruning in early spring allows these shrubs to focus their growth on the newly cut areas and prevents you from removing any stems that might have produced flowers.

  • Prune flowering trees and shrubs that bloom on old wood (last season’s growth) right after they are done flowering. If you wait to prune until too long after blooming, you will be removing stems that would have produced flowers next spring. Woody plants that bloom on old wood include rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), dogwoods (Cornus spp.), lilacs (Syringa spp.), forsythia (Forsythia spp.), and some hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, H. quercifolia).

  • Prune evergreen shrubs or hedges in the spring before new growth emerges. Yew (Taxus spp.), arborvitae (Thuja spp.), juniper (Juniperus spp.), and boxwood (Buxus spp.) are some examples of evergreen shrubs. For shaped hedges and topiary, a mid-summer trim will likely be needed to keep the shrub shapely. Be careful not to trim too much off of evergreens, as they generally will not produce new foliage on old wood.

  • For fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, pruning techniques vary greatly, so it’s best to look specifically for information related to the type of fruit or berry you are growing. Contact your state’s Cooperative Extension Service for local advice.

Now You’re Ready to Prune!

Now you should have the knowledge AND the tools to keep the trees and shrubs in your garden healthy and looking great. 

Need extra incentive? Our friends at ECHO are offering us a very special deal from April 1, 2019 through June 30, 2019. 

Buy ANY ECHO Pro Attachment Series™ powerhead with ANY single attachment tool (choosing from string trimmer, edger, blower, and many more)—and get a free trimmer attachment! 

Learn more here.

Have some tips or questions about pruning? Leave them in the comments below!


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Is this an ad for Echo?

Is this an ad for Echo?


Indeed, it is a custom sponsored article for our friends at ECHO. (Note the SPONSORED along the top and ECHO advertising.) We are fortunate to have their sponsorship which helps keep this entire Web site free and running! We are careful to clearly designate any sponsored articles, though we hope you will find that the editorial content is helpful as we write it ourselves, based on our lawn and garden expertise, and strive to make it seasonal and useful.


Can you take cutting off a bush to start a new bush?