Winter Pruning Guide for Trees and Shrubs

When to Prune Shrubs and Trees

April 17, 2019
Winter Pruning

Late winter or early spring is the best time time to prune most shrubs and trees—but not all! See our list of which trees and shrubs to prune, and get some general pruning tips for the season.

Pruning in Winter or Early Spring

Most plants are dormant during the winter, which is typically the best time to make any adjustments to their shape. You want to prune hard at end of winter or very early spring BEFORE any new growth starts!

Pruning in the winter promotes fast regrowth in the spring. It’s also easier to see the shape of deciduous plants in the winter, since their foliage is gone.

Pruning Tips

  • Prune on a mild, dry day.
  • Never prune too early as incisions can dry out if the temperature drops below freezing. 
  • When pruning, first prune out dead and diseased branches, especially caused by winter’s snow and ice in late winter. 
  • Unwanted lower branches on all evergreen shrubs and trees should also be removed in late winter.
  • Then remove the overgrown and smaller branches to increase light and air at the crown of the tree.
  • In general, your goal is to keep the branches that develop or maintain the structure of the tree.
  • Cut branches at the node, the point at which one branch or twig attaches to another.

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Which Shrubs to Prune When

Got flowering shrubs? When to prune a shrub depends mostly on when it blooms and whether it flowers on growth produced in the same or previous years.

  • In winter and early spring, prune shrubs that form their flower buds on “new” wood (i.e., wood that will grow this spring). Examples include: abelia, beautyberry, butterfly bush, most clematis, our native smooth hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, potentilla, roses, rose-of-sharon, shrub dogwoods, Japanese spirea, St. Johnswort and summersweet.
  • Wait until after flowers fade to prune spring-flowering shrubs which bloom on “old” wood, i.e., the growth of previous season. Examples are: azalea, beautybush, bridalwreath spirea, spring-blooming clematis, cotoneaster, deutzia, enkianthus, flowering almond, forsythia, mophead hydrangeas, lilacs, mock orange, mountain laurel, ninebark, oakleaf hydrangea, pieris, rhododendron, viburnum, Virginia sweetspire, weigela, wisteria and witch hazel. If you cut them too early, you’ll cut off the buds that would’ve opened this spring! The best time to prune spring-blooming shrubs is right after the spring blooms fade.

Which Trees to Prune When

  • Prune Evergreen shrubs (yew, holly, and boxwoods) and evergreen trees (spruce, fir) is late winter or early spring when they are still dormant and before new growth begins. Pines are pruned in early June to early July.
  • Prune shade trees, such as oak, sweetgum, maple, katsura and hornbeam in late winter or early spring.
  • But wait until after bloom to prune spring-flowering trees, such as dogwood, redbud, cherry, pear and magnolia.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a tree has dead branches unless you climb it. For this reason, it may be prudent to hire a tree trimmer to prune any dead trees once every 3 years.  To prune trees yourself, look into tree pruners with long-reach poles so that you can keep your own feet safely on the ground.

Common Shrubs and Trees to Prune in Late Winter to Early Spring

  WHEN HOW
Abelia Winter to early spring Maintain a graceful arching form by cutting away some of the oldest stems at ground level. Pinch growing shoots in spring if you want bushier growth.
Azalea Late winter or during the growing season Before growth begins for the season, improve the form of the bush by shortening stems that jut out of place. During the growing season, pinch growing shoot tips where you want bushier growth.
Butterfly bush Late winter Cut all stems to the ground.
Chaste tree Late winter or early spring Evergreen species need little pruning beyond cutting out weak, twiggy, dead, or broken branches.
Crape myrtle Late winter Wherever the plant is not totally winter-hardy, cut off winter-killed wood or cut the whole plant to the ground. Little pruning is needed where this plant is cold-hardy.
Hydrangea Mostly late winter 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.
Some hydrangea are NOT pruned in late winter. To avoid cutting off blooms, see our guide to pruning hydrangea varieties.
Smoke bush Late winter or early spring, before growth begins Needs little pruning unless you grow it for its purple leaves rather than for its flowers. In this case, prune severely to stimulate vigorous new growth each spring.
 

Now see how to prune with our pruning pointers!

Got roses? Most are also pruned in late winter or early spring but see our guide on Pruning Roses.

Source: 

The Pruning Book, by Lee Reich

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Reader Comments

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What is a Data Scientist? Or Rather Who is a Data Scientist?

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.
Some hydrangea are NOT pruned in late winter. To avoid cutting off blooms

Wisteria and Crepe Myrtles

My 40+ year old Wisteria won't bloom if I prune it after June. I've learned to prune it after it has bloomed. Also, there's always such a debate about when and how to prune crepe myrtles. I go with Neil Sperry's theory of not topping them!

PRUNING GUIDE FOR TREES

wood, i.e., the growth of previous season. Examples are: azalea, beautybush, bridalwreath spirea, spring-blooming clematis, cotoneaster, deutzia, enkianthus, flowering almond, forsythia, mophead hydrangeas, lilacs, mock orange, mountain laurel, ninebark, oakleaf hydrangea, pieris, rhododendron, viburnum, Virginia sweetspire, weigela, wisteria and witch hazel. If you cut them too early, you’ll cut off the buds that would’ve opened this spring! The best time to prune spring-blooming shrubs is right after the spring blooms fade.

Tree is over 100 and large branches hanging over driveway. We w

Tree is over 100 and large branches hanging over. The driveway is a disaster waiting to happen. Their Realtor says you can trim trees in Winter. We live basically in Kansas City, Missouri. Can the tree be be cut back now in our climate zone?

Winter Pruning

The Editors's picture

Hi, Deborah: Thanks for this excellent question. FWIW, what you describe sounds less like pruning and more like tree work necessary for the sake of safety. Be that as it may, most deciduous plants are dormant during winter and perfectly OK to actually prune to get rid of dead wood and encourage new growth in spring. How dormant the tree is, or even whether it’s dormant at all, would depend on the type of tree and the exact microclimate of its site, but we would just go ahead and have it done. Thanks again!

Tree Trimming

Hi ORANGE TREE,
A well outstanding information you have share on this page about the purning of trees and shrubs in with season due to the insects disease of tree roots ,But you must Pruning deciduous plants in the winter promotes fast regrowth in the spring, as most plants are dormant during the winter. It’s also easier to see the shape of deciduous plants in the winter, since their foliage is gone. otherwise you may have loose due to the use of low quality insects killer .so be careful of your self .
Thanks.

Orange ttree

I have a Washington Navel orange tree in my Southern California yard. It produces luciously sweet, large fruit January-February. It flowers in March-Apri. When is the best time to prune to keep it shaped well and produce for next year?

prune an established fig tree

It's now the beginning of March. Am I too late to prune a fig tree to encourage more fruiting? I know February is really the month for pruning fig, but it flew past just way to fast!

I'm researching a similar

I'm researching a similar question. For sure, I know that not pruning a mature tree [mine is over 100] will mean WAY too many fruiting branches, and less sweet fruit. I came looking to see... It's pretty cold here still... if I can prune in near freezing temps.

The Cold Truth

Hi, Jason and Elaine (above): Your trees may not be in deep dormancy at this stage (we don’t know where you are), but you can still achieve a positive effect from pruning, so get to it! And thanks for asking!

Fig tree pruning

How and when di I tri the fig trees in pots?

tree hedge trimming

Hi, we have a twenty meter row of fur trees 2.5 meter high which are becoming thick with growth and losing shape. May I have some advice please as to when we should prune and cut back?
Many thanks and cheers
Kerry

Pruning Pecan tree - lower limbs

New Braunfels TX - when is the best time to prune pecan tree lower limbs?

Hi Suzanne,

The Editors's picture

Hi Suzanne,

Best time to prune is in early spring after leaves have sprouted but before buds appear.

Pruning in the winter may be

Pruning in the winter may be easier on the owner and/or tree technician, because the view of the branches is much clearer without the foliage, and all above detailed points are very useful.

When "cutting to the ground"

When "cutting to the ground" does mean to actually cut out all visable signs of the bush? I have a butterfly bush that went through a particually harsh winter in the NE. The thing is completely brown and lifeless.

Essentially, that is what it

Essentially, that is what it means, Mike: cutting to within a few inches of ground level. Cut out all that brown lifelessness. Your butterfly bush should come back as good or better than ever.

the moon pruning guide says

the moon pruning guide says when to prune to "discourage" and "encourage" growth -- does that mean discourage growth of the tree or of the branch?

Hi Marnie, To discourage

The Editors's picture

Hi Marnie,
To discourage growth means that the tree or bush will not grow back the pruned branches quickly. If you want a tree or bush to fill out quickly you prune during the encourage growth dates.

Can you still prune

Can you still prune rhododendrons or is it too late in the season. How severe can you prune.

Hi, Ellie: If you click on

The Editors's picture

Hi, Ellie: If you click on Spring Pruning Guide above, you can see that rhododendrons really should be pruned -- carefully -- in the spring, after they have flowered. You could do it now, but it would be best to wait. Thanks for asking!

I live in northern Indiana.

I live in northern Indiana. It has been cold here for weeks. On an early December day I decided on a lark to prune back a trio of bushes I felt too tall.

When I had completed the job I thought the skeletons looked good but wondered if my timing was appropriate.

I googled "winter Pruning" and got your site. It would appear I have infringed two rules: I pruned too early in winter and may have approached the "no more than a third of the bush" limit.

Now I have expose my plants to winter scarring and or death. Will I be able to tell in late February if there is winter scarring? Would it be adviseable for me to prune back another inch or two in late February?

Sure wish I would have checked your site before I got out the pruners!

It depends on what type of

The Editors's picture

It depends on what type of bushes you have. Some varieties are more sensitive to winter scarring than others. Don't prune more this winter. Wait for spring growth and hopefully your bushes will be fine.

I have a bush/tree that

I have a bush/tree that blooms small pretty purple flowers. It can be cut into a bush or trim bottom limbs and it grows into a tree.
We had our first freeze about a week ago and it really froze the it. The trunk and limbs look ok.
The blooms are at the top of the limb and have many little balls that open up with the purple color.
I live in North Texas and this is my first year with this plant and need to know if and when to trim it back.
Thanks, Deb

It's hard to give pruning

The Editors's picture

It's hard to give pruning advice not knowing what type of blooming bush you have. Some bushes are pruned in early spring when they are dormant and others are pruned right after they are done blooming. Try to find out what type of bush you have before pruning. Look in catalogs or online to see if you can find a similar bush. Or next year, when it is blooming, take a sample to your local garden center for help.

WHEN is late winter in

WHEN is late winter in Southwest Oklahoma? We can have fruit trees starting to bud out quite early some years ... first of March.

In Oklahoma, the best time to

The Editors's picture

In Oklahoma, the best time to prune fruit trees is from late February to early March. Many folks in southern Oklahomam prune in February. Just don't prune too early in winter or the trees are susceptible to injury. Check with your local county cooperative extension.

I always wait for my

I always wait for my hydrangea to put on leaves before I cut them back, otherwise I don't get any blooms. I cut the dead parts from the branch ends after leaves have formed. This way I am sure I have cut only what needs to be cut. Then I have beautiful blooms in the Spring. Hydrangea is one of my favorite perenials except that no matter what I try mine all turn out blue or purple, no pinks or reds. I've tried all of the tricks I've ever read to get pink ones, even bought a red one, and a pink one, but when they bloom the next year they are blue. So - I just enjoy my beautiful blue ones and the red one turned purple and is beautiful. By the way, I live in LA., may make a difference in pruning times and techniques. I'm not sure.

I have the opposite

I have the opposite problem... my blooms are always pink, and I can't get any blue ones! I also wait until the leaves form to prune. It looks strange for a month or so, but if I cut the stems before that, they don't bloom. Two years ago, my bushes started flowering, but the flowers all faded and shriveled. Not sure what happened. This year, I hardly had any blooms on that bush. Hopefully this year they'll make a nice showing!

Soil PH is the determining

Soil PH is the determining factor for color on this plant. as for the flower prefall it could be a water stress problem or a disease. Check with your local plant nursery or garden shop for more on the problem. Also see my answer to LA for a further explaination of the effects of PH of soil on Hydrangea

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