Pruning Trees and Shrubs

Learn how to thin out and shape woody plants, including trees and shrubs.


Pruning trees and shrubs is essential to maintaining healthy plants. It's important to remove dead or diseased wood, to increase air circulation to the plant's interior and to increase flower and fruit production. Follow this process to pruning your woody plants.

When to Prune

When you prune depends on the type of tree or shrub. Trim deciduous woody plants during their dormant season and spring-flowering ones immediately after they bloom. Prune fruit trees in their dormant season and in the summer. Prune evergreens in the spring.

Get Started on Pruning

Before you prune, step back, look at your tree or shrub, and take note of its shape. Notice whether it's misshapen, and visualize what shape it should be. Begin to identify which limbs need to be removed. Gather pruning tools, including pruners, sharp lopping shears and possibly a sturdy handsaw, depending on the size of the plant.

Remove canes, sometimes called suckers, that have sprouted directly from tree roots. The most effective way to do this is to "grub" them out with a hoe. Not all trees produce suckers.

In addition to being unsightly, water sprouts – straight, rapidly growing shoots that appear along the larger branches of fruit trees and some shade trees – can drain vigor from a tree. Lop off each sprout, cutting back to the branch to which it's attached, leaving just a bit of wood on the branch. This thins out the tree, allowing light to reach the innermost leaves and increasing air circulation within the plant's interior.

Sometimes it's necessary to remove a branch completely, as larger branches compete with small ones, leaving the latter weakened and susceptible to disease. Crowded branches can allow moisture to accumulate, encouraging rot. Branches that cross and rub against each other can cause wounds, making the tree susceptible to disease.

Remove the bulk of the branch to get rid of excess weight that could cause the bark to tear from the final cut. The next cut is the most important because if you don't do it right, you may kill the tree. Leave a small piece of the branch attached to the trunk rather than make the cut flush to the trunk. Look for the branch collar, a bulge on the branch extending from the main trunk, and make the cut just above the collar. In time, a callus will develop to heal the cut. If you cut off the branch collar, the wound won't heal properly, and that can be disastrous for a tree.

The most tedious cut is the heading cut, made to shorten the tree, to head it back and stimulate new growth. There are two types of heading cuts: selective and nonselective. In the latter, ordinarily used to shear formal hedges, branches are cut partway back, which results in rapid, bushy growth just below the cut. This cut isn't recommended for trees because it may result in a "lollipop" look. Selective cuts reduce the size of a tree without changing its natural shape. Make cuts directly above a bud or side branch that faces in the direction you want the new stems to grow. Cut off buds that face into the tree and instead allow for outward-facing growth.

Pruning Tips

• Never remove more than one-third of the wood each time you prune.
• Prune from the bottom up.
• Prune from the inside out.
• Make thinning cuts first, heading cuts last.

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