Pruning Pointers for Trees and Shrubs

February 23, 2009
Pruning Pointers

Pruning trees and shrubs may be the most feared act in gardening. Using sharp metal objects to cut away life goes against our natural inclinations.

Remember that Nature is the Great Pruner. For example, when trees grow too close together, branches die as they compete for sunlight and airflow.

Pruning is a vital part of gardening. The key is to know why we’re sharpening our shears. Consider these three reasons:

To Thin:

Remove to improve. Thinning is about cutting out all dead, diseased, and injured parts to let in more air and light. Most important, thinning prevents confusion of a plant’s structural line and enhances it health.

To Reduce:

In Nature, most plants we grow are in splendid isolation, trying to spread unnaturally fast. Our job is to prevent certain shrubs and trees from outgrowing their position in a yard. Judicious reducing helps plants develop into sound structures without over-stressing their limbs. Also, maximum flowering and bountiful fruit are only possible by pruning.

To Amputate:

It sounds harsh, but severe pruning is necessary to restore older trees and shrubs to better health. Most plants are amazingly forgiving with experimentation. Think twice, cut once, and watch carefully. Your plants will tell you in their own way how to do better next season.

Pruning Pointers

Here are some pruning pointers for late winter and early spring. Plants are dormant but the coldest part of winter has passed, lowering the chance of cold damage near pruning cuts.

  • Prune butterfly bush severely. These plants bloom only on new shoots. Stimulate new growth by lopping the whole plant to within a few inches of the ground.
  • Cut to the ground some or all of the oldest stems of shrubby dogwoods. This will make way for the youngest stems that will provide next winter’s show of bright yellow or red.
  • On apple and other fruit trees, cut water sprouts right to their bases. These vigorous, upright shots soak up the plant’s energy and bear few or no flowers or fruits. Remove weak twigs.
  • For smooth hydrangea, cut all stems to the ground. For bigleaf or oakleaf hydrangea, cut stems with old flowers still attached back to fat flower buds.
  • For lilacs, remove all dead canes. Cut out all crossing branches, keeping the strongest or most useful ones for a graceful form. Cut back last year’s growth dramatically, though never more than one-third of the live wood.

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment


When should I prune my Apple trees? I live in Bloomfield Iowa. Thanks


The bottom leaves of my tomato plants seem to die every year. What can I do to stop that from happening? I live in Baltimore, MD..

Hi Rudolph, There are a

Hi Rudolph, There are a number of tomato problems that start with foliage at the bottom yellowing. In past years, what problem did this lead to?

Did a disease spread to the fruit? If the fruit is distorted or aborted, it could be blight or wilt. However if the fruit growth was not affected, it might be left spot which is less worrying.

In general, you want to have good air circulation to avoid fungal disease. Plant 3 to 4 feet apart to avoid any crowding. Water in the morning to give plants time to dry. If you feel any leaves look diseased, just remove them as soon as possible. Also, we’d suggest removing lower branches, leaving the stem bare up to the first set of flowers and then mulch (straw is a good choice). This will reduce infection. Finally, you mentioned you’ve planted tomatoes before. Be sure to remove ALL the plant after the harvest ends and also rotate the planting location every three to five years.

See our Tomato Growing Guide for how to grow tomatoes and more pest and problem links.

When and how should I trim my

When and how should I trim my oleanders? I live in eastern florida. I may have improperly trimmed them

a couple years ago. they look bad! Would like them to be ? 5 ft and full Thank you.

Hi Colleen, Oleander should

Hi Colleen,
Oleander should be pruned after blooming in late summer. Cut back just above the leaf nodes. This is where three leaves come out of the branch. You will get three new branches coming from the section which once had three leaves. Let the new branches grow a little and then prune them also at the leaf nodes to force more branching for a fuller and rounder bush. Cut out any branches that are dead or crossing other branches.

I planted a Forsythia bush

I planted a Forsythia bush last year and it dropped its floweres and leaves quickly! I was hoping this spring it would perk up but still no new growth on any of the branches! Its in a sunny spot and other trees around it grow good! What do I do with it? I hate to just throw it away if I can bring it back to life! I live in Pennsylvania near Lake Erie!

Once you had an calendar on

Once you had an calendar on when to prune roses for the best results. I believe it was based on the moon. I had the most beautiful roses that year. Can you explane how to create that chart?

Unfortunately, we don’t

Unfortunately, we don’t remember a product like that. If you are interested in information about roses, with tips on pruning, please see:

If you are interested in gardening using astrology, then you might go to the Best Days Astrological Timetable. Check the “Prune to encourage growth” and “Prune to discourage growth” rows.

Also, you can determine astrological dates in the following way:

Consult the 2012 Moon’s Sign Calendar, which you can purchase at the following link:

On this chart, look for when the Moon is in Aries, Leo, or Sagittarius. Then, check on to determine the Moon’s phase each month. According to astrology, pruning during a waxing Moon (from the new Moon to the full Moon) while the Moon is also in one of those three zodiac signs will encourage growth. Pruning during a waning Moon (from the day after a full Moon to the day before the new Moon) while the Moon is also in one of those three zodiac signs will discourage growth.