Pruning Pointers for Trees and Shrubs

April 22, 2019
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.

There is probably no gardening task that generates as much fear in home gardeners as fruit tree pruning, and because of this, many homeowners want to ignore it.

However, if you ignore pruning, your trees will only get worse.

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

Second, pruning is a vital part of gardening. The key is to know why we’re sharpening our shears. Do it!  Consider these three reasons:

1. To Thin:

Remove to improve.

  • Thin all dead, diseased, broken and injured parts. This pruning can be done any time.
  • Thin branches that hang down below the horizon line, or “hangers,” are generally not productive and should be removed as well.  Prune any limbs that sag or grow close to the ground.

Thinning prevents confusion of a plant’s structural line and enhances it health.

  • For young shrubs, “heading cuts” remove part of a shoot or limb and encourage side branching and dense growth. With hand pruners, trim long, unbranched stems by cutting just above a healthy bud, angled at 45 degrees and facing away from the bud. Note that new shoots will grow in the direction the bud is pointing. Like most pruning, heading cuts should be timed to avoid disrupting the plant’s flowering.
  • As a shrub develops, thin out old, weak, rubbing, or wayward branches where they merge with another branch. This opens up the middle of the plant to more sunlight, which keeps interior branches healthy, stimulates growth, and increases flowering. Thinning cuts remove an entire branch where it meets another limb, the main stem, or the ground. They should be made as close to this junction as possible. These cuts help maintain the plant’s natural shape, limit its size, and open up the interior branches to light and air. 
  • Older shrubs may need a more extensive program of thinning cuts that takes three years. On shrubs with multiple stems that grow up from the base, like lilac, viburnum, forsythia, and dogwood, remove ⅓ of the old stems each year while leaving the new, flower-producing growth untouched. Eventually, the new flower-producing stems will completely replace the lackluster old growth. 

2.  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. 

  • Remove all suckers and water sprouts. Suckers grow from the base of the tree. Water sprouts are succulent growth from the previous year and usually shoot straight into the air from more established scaffold branches. Water sprouts compete for light. They are not productive and should be removed. They are best controlled in the summer when they are only 2 to 4 inches long. They can be easily removed by rubbing or breaking them.

Judicious reducing helps plants develop into sound structures without over-stressing their limbs. Also, maximum flowering and bountiful fruit are only possible by pruning.

  • For fruit trees, it’s necessary to prune branches to support the weight of fruit. Also, fruit trees that have shaded interiors are far less productive than those that receive proper sunlight. When leaves receive sun exposure, more carbohydrates are made. This sends more sugars to the fruit. 
  • Know where the fruit is formed. Peaches are formed on last year’s branches—and should be pruned severely to stimulate enough growth this year to support fruit next year. Apples, pears, cherries and plums are all found on short, stubby branches called spurs—typically formed on wood that is 2 to 5 years old. Prune less drastically to reduce the amount of vegetative growth or water sprouts.

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.

  • When cutting a tree branch, cut as close to the branch collar—the swollen ring of bark where the limb meets the main stem or trunk—as possible without cutting into it. When cutting branches more than 1 inch in diameter, avoid tearing or stripping bark by using a pruning saw and the three-cut method shown below. A good pruning cut will heal quickly and naturally without the use of dressings or poultices.
  • Neglected deciduous shrubs can often take hard pruning, as will a handful of broadleaf evergreens, such as privet. Using loppers and a pruning saw, cut back all stems to within an inch of the ground during the plant’s winter dormancy. Come spring, the plants will quickly produce new shoots from the base. Of course, this technique will leave you with little to look at while waiting for the new growth.

10 Pruning Pointers 

  1. Prune summer-flowering plants, which will flower on the coming season’s new growth, while they are still dormant (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. See our pruning chart for summer-flowering shrubs and trees.
  2. Prune spring-flowering plants immediately after their blossoms fade. Because they produce flowers only on old growth from the previous season, pruning soon after bloom will maximize flower production the next year. Pinch the candles on whorled-branching conifers when you see new growth. See our pruning chart for spring-flowering shrubs and trees.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Avoid pruning a young or newly planted tree — it needs as many leaves as possible to produce the food required for good root growth.
  9. Always prune back to a healthy stem or branch without leaving stubs. This eliminates hiding places for pests and diseases, and looks better. 
  10.  Never cut back the plant’s leader—the top-most growing point of the tree—which is vital to letting the tree develop its natural form.

Enjoy our gardening expert’s article with more advice on when to prune trees and shrubs.


Reader Comments

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Ginko Tree Pruning

I have a ginko tree and it has three top branches. I am thinking that i should cut two of them. They are still small in diameter but long and inter twining.


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

Pruning trees

The Editors's picture

Pruning is best done in late winter/early spring (late February to early April). See our Apple page for more tips.


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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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.