Find more garden information
Ann is an avid gardener, cook and garden writer, and a Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She tends to her old farmhouse and organic homestead where she raises blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and elderberries, as well as fruit and nut trees. Ann grows vegetables and herbs in raised beds and containers that are tucked into a lush landscape of perennial gardens in the scenic Winooski River Valley. A trained horticulturist and ecological landscape designer, she is the author of four gardening books, including Organic Gardening for Dummies, and is a longtime contributor to many magazines, websites and other publications.
When spring is in the air, you might be itching to get outside and do a little yard work. Pruning is a perfect chore for late-winter and early spring because most trees and shrubs are dormant. What's more, it's the time of year when there are few gardening tasks on your list.
What to prune? The prospect can be daunting — even to experienced gardeners. But, with a few simple guidelines, even a beginner can prune ornamental shrubs successfully. In general, your goals are:
It's important to identify each shrub or tree before you prune. If you don't know what it is, find a neighbor that can help you, or take a branch to a local garden center for identification. (It's easier to identify a tree or shrub during the growing season; plan for next year's pruning jobs by identifying the plants this summer.)
Why? Some shrubs should not be pruned in spring. In general, spring bloomers, such as magnolias and lilacs, should be pruned after they bloom. If you prune in spring, you'll most likely cut off the dormant buds, and there will be no flowers. For these early-flowering shrubs, just look for dead or damaged wood and remove it.
Pruning is an intimidating topic for many gardeners. But with the right information and sharp tools, you'll be ready to make the cuts.
After many years working as a professional horticulturist, I've often been asked about pruning. Here are the questions I hear most:
If you are tackling a big, overgrown deciduous shrub with lots of stems, remove the oldest stems by cutting them right to the ground. You can cut down about 1/4 of the stems each year to rejuvenate the shrub.
A thinning cut removes a branch back to its origin or to a lateral branch that's at least one-third of the removed-limb's diameter. Thinning cuts leave the pruned plant with a natural appearance.
When you cut a twig or branch back to the trunk or to a lateral branch, it's important cut at just the right place. Look for a raised bump or rings around the base of the twig or branch and take care to cut just outside it, leaving the ring intact. It's called the branch collar, and this is where the scar tissue forms to heal the wound.
Shrubs that bloom in the summer, such as roses and butterfly bush, develop flower buds on the current season's growth. Prune this group while they're dormant in late winter to early spring to encourage vigorous new growth and lots of flowers.
Oakleaf (H. quercifolia) and bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla), including Nikko Blue and all the other pink- and blue-flowering cultivars, bloom from buds set the previous year. If they need pruning to maintain size or shape, do it only in the summer, preferably before August. The so-called ever-blooming hydrangeas, such as the Endless Summer series, should be treated the same.
Arborvitae, false cypress, cypress, juniper and yew have more random branching and can sprout new growth from older wood. Pinch, prune or shear new spring growth, or prune twigs back to the branch.
Last updated: 4/1/19
Stay up to date on new articles and advice.
Gardening Success Guaranteed
Garden Lab Designed & Tested
Support a Community that Cares
Expert Garden Advice