When to Prune Trees and Shrubs

Wondering when you should get out your pruning tools? A gardening expert reveals when to prune trees and shrubs to help them grow, bloom and produce fruit.

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Prune weigela (pink) and ninebark (white) after their first flush of flowers to control their growth.

“I am wondering when to prune trees and shrubs. Which trees and shrubs should I prune or cut back in early winter? Which should be left alone until late winter or early spring?” asks Jen St. Louis of Elmira, Ontario.

Always prune trees and shrubs with a purpose, whether it’s to establish a strong framework, remove damaged and hazardous branches, encourage flowering and fruiting, or manage growth. Timing depends on the type of plant.

When to Prune Pine Trees

Prune pine trees in spring as the buds elongate into what we call candles. These are cut to limit new growth.

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When to Prune Spruce Trees

Prune spruce trees above healthy buds or adjoining branches in spring before growth begins.

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Prune deciduous fruit trees, like apple trees and peach trees, when the tree is dormant in winter. Dormant pruning removes some of the flower buds, but it also opens up the tree to more light and air, boosting tree health and fruit size and quality. On berry bushes, remove the oldest stems at ground level to encourage fresh fruiting branches.

When to Prune Deciduous Trees

Prune deciduous trees like oak and honey locust in winter. It’s easier to see the framework of the branches in the winter when the leaves are off. The exception is trees that produce a lot of winter sap like maples. Sap loss won’t hurt the trees, but it can make a sticky mess on nearby structures, cars or furniture. These trees are easier to prune in midsummer when sap flow isn’t a problem.

Learn how to prune and care for crape myrtle trees.

When to Prune Spring Blooming Shrubs

Prune spring flowering shrubs like forsythia and lilac right after flowering to maintain early flowers while controlling growth. These plants form their flower buds on old wood from the previous growing season.

When to Prune Summer Blooming Shrubs

Prune summer flowering shrubs like rose of Sharon and butterfly bush anytime during the dormant season—I prefer late winter or early spring before growth begins. Correct winter damage then, too. Pruning wounds close quickly as new growth begins in spring. Shrubs grown for foliage, such as barberry, privet and burning bush, are also good candidates for winter pruning.

Learn when to prune hydrangeas for big, showy blooms.

When to Prune Evergreen Shrubs

Prune evergreen shrubs in later winter. They suffer less damage if the tender inner growth is not exposed until the worst of winter weather has passed.

Next, check out more garden pruning tips.

Melinda Myers
Nationally known gardening expert, TV/radio host, author, columnist and speaker.