Winter Pruning Guide for Trees and Shrubs

Tips for Pruning in Winter and Early Spring

January 22, 2020
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.

Why Prune in Late Winter or Early Spring?

In temperate regions, most plants go dormant during the winter. This is the time of year when they’ve halted active growth and have hunkered down for the cold weather. Because of this dormancy, late winter and early spring are typically the best times to make any adjustments to the shapes of many trees and shrubs. You want to prune hard at the end of winter or very early spring BEFORE any new growth starts. This allows the plant to put its energy towards producing new, healthy growth when the warmer temperatures of spring roll around.

Practically speaking, it’s also a lot easier to see the true shape of deciduous plants in the winter, since their foliage is gone.

Not all trees and shrubs should be pruned in the winter or early spring, however. Generally speaking, shrubs and trees that bloom on new growth should be pruned in the winter and early spring, while those that bloom on old growth should be pruned in late spring or summer (i.e., after their flowers fade). Read on for more details.

General Cold-Weather Pruning Tips

  • Prune on a mild, dry day. Not only is this more pleasant for you, the gardener—it also helps to prevent the spreading of waterborne plant diseases or damage from cold temperatures.
  • Never prune too early in the winter, as incisions can dry out if the temperature drops well below freezing. 
  • When pruning, first prune out dead and diseased branches, especially those caused by the winter’s snow and ice. 
  • Unwanted lower branches on all evergreen shrubs and trees should also be removed in late winter.
  • Remove 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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When to Prune Flowering Shrubs

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., growth that will occur in the coming spring). Examples include: abelia, beautyberry, butterfly bush, summer- or fall-blooming clematis, smooth hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, potentilla, roses, rose of sharon, dogwoods, Japanese spirea, St. Johnswort, and summersweet.
  • Wait until late spring or early summer (after flowers fade) to prune shrubs that bloom on “old” wood (i.e., growth from the previous year). 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.

When to Prune Trees and Evergreens

  • Prune evergreen shrubs (yew, holly, and boxwoods) and evergreen trees (spruce, fir) in 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.
  • Wait to prune spring-flowering trees, such as dogwood, redbud, cherry, pear, and magnolia, until after they flower. Read more about this here.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a tree has dead branches higher up 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 shorter trees yourself, look into tree pruners with long-reach poles so that you can keep your own feet safely on the ground.

Trees and Shrubs to Prune in Late Winter or Early Spring

  WHEN HOW
Apple Late winter to early spring Prune moderately. Keep tree open with main branches well spaced. Avoid sharp V-shaped crotches.
Abelia Late 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 to early spring Evergreen species need little pruning beyond cutting out weak, twiggy, dead, or broken branches.
Cherry Late winter to early spring Prune the most vigorous shoots moderately.
Clethra (Summersweet) Early spring Prune moderately. Keep tree open with main branches well spaced. Avoid sharp V-shaped crotches.
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.
Dogwood Late winter to early spring Prune the most vigorous shoots moderately.
Hibiscus (Rose of Sharon) Early spring Prune moderately. Keep tree open with main branches well spaced. Avoid sharp V-shaped crotches.
Hydrangea Mostly late winter, but depends on species 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 future flower buds, see our guide to pruning hydrangea varieties.
Peach Late winter to early spring Remove half of last year’s growth. Keep tree headed low.
Plum Late winter to early spring Cut dead, diseased branches; trim rank growth moderately.
Roses Early spring Cut dead and weak growth; cut branches or canes to four or five buds. See our article about pruning roses for more information.
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!

Source: 

The Pruning Book, by Lee Reich

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Reader Comments

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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

The color of the Hydrangea is

The color of the Hydrangea is determines by the PH of the soil. Ask at your local garden shop or look it up on line which soil ph determines what color. Here in SC most of our bushes turn out white or light pink because our soil is acidic. Out west most soils are alkaline you can test your soil with an inexpensive soil test kit or send a sample to your local college extension program to get it tested for ph and a list of what to do to get your plants to bloom another color. Jeff Davis Associate Degree horticulture.

Here in Missouri we can play

Here in Missouri we can play with the soil, I added the acidifier, and ended up with the most beautiful bush of all colors! I called it the Baby Shower Hydrangea! I was blessed with every color! Mixed on one bush! However I will confess to adding nails to the soil 3 years ago that I know will rust to acidify, hoping to get the very blue!

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