11 Tips for Pruning Shrubs and Trees in Late Winter

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Categories: Gardening Tips,Shrubs

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Pruning shrubs and small trees encourages renewed growth and bloom and reduces insect or disease infestation.

The final weeks of winter are an ideal time for pruning shrubs and trees. Why is pruning important? “Pruning shrubs and trees is part of an overall plant health regimen,” says Kirsten Ann Conrad, Extension Agent for Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, Va.

“Pruning is a tool for managing the size of your plants and also training a plant’s growth in desired ways, encouraging renewed or reduced bloom and fruit production, and reducing insect or disease infestation.”

Kirsten offers these excellent tips for effectively pruning shrubs and trees.

  1. Know your plants and when they bloom. It’s always appropriate to prune away diseased, dead, dying, and storm-damaged wood at any time of the year. But the best time to prune for size reduction and shaping of healthy plants varies. If your woody plant blooms before June 1st, its flower buds formed last year. Examples include azaleas, forsythia, lilac, kerria, flowering almond, and most fruit and ornamental flowering trees. These plants should be pruned AFTER they bloom and BEFORE the end of July, when flower set for next year is initiated. If your plants bloom AFTER June 1st, flower buds will be formed on THIS YEAR’s new growth. Examples of these plants include crape myrtle, cotoneaster, hypericum, abelia, clethra, and most woody plants not grown for their flowers.  These plants should be cut now before growth starts in the spring.
  1. Inspect and clean your tools. Steel wool, a whetstone or other blade sharpening devices can be used to clean and sharpen your loppers, hedge shears, hand pruners, and other straight-bladed tools. For saw blades, clean off old plant sap and make sure the locking mechanisms on folding pruning saws are working and screws are tight. For power equipment, clean and sharpen blades, inspect cord attachments for damage, and change out spark plugs.
  1. When pruning shrubs for overall size reduction, stagger your cuts throughout the plant to encourage new growth at different levels of the plant.
  1. Never remove more than one third of a plant during any one season. A plant needs its leaves to manufacture food.
  1. Always cut back to just above a side shoot or a bud that is pointing in the direction that you want your plant to grow. Pruning stimulates new growth. Think about your goal in pruning shrubs and trees – what you want your pruning to accomplish – before you cut.
  1. Prune off crowded and overlapping growth from the center of a plant to improve air circulation. Try to remove
    Fall lawn care, Kirsten Buhls

    Kirsten Ann Conrad with the VCE.

    branches that are crossing or rubbing each other wherever you find them.

  1. Prune to optimize exposure to light. Hedges should always be wider at the base than at the top.
  1. When working with extended pole saws or trimmers, never stand directly beneath the branch to be cut.
  1. Always prune with two feet on the ground and, if using power tools, both hands holding the equipment.
  1. Root pruning can also be done in preparation for moving a plant or to maintain a plant in a small space.
  1. Reduce your need for pruning by practicing “Right Plant Right Place.” Choosing a plant that tolerates your soil and light conditions and space requirements will pay dividends in reduced maintenance and healthier plants.

Find more information about pruning shrubs and trees, including diagrams, videos and articles from our state Cooperative Extension offices and other organizations, on this Mid-Atlantic Gardener  Resource Page.

Learn more about the services offered through Kirsten’s Extension Office.  Call 703-228-6414 or visit the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia.

And receive the latest gardening articles, interviews, and announcements of upcoming gardening events in your in-box twice a month. Sign up for the Mid-Atlantic Gardener e-newsletter!

Author: John Gunn

John is the owner and publisher of Mid-Atlantic Gardener, LLC. John is an active Master Gardener through the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia Tech, a member of the Virginia Native Plant Society, a recipient of two USDA Graduate School certificates, in horticulture and landscape design, a former "shrubber" at Merrifield Garden Center, a two-term council chair for Arlington Chamber of Commerce and the owner of a thriving gardening and design business since 2010. John received his master's degree in marketing from Johns Hopkins University and spent 20 years developing marketing plans, strategies and brands for national nonprofit organizations in the Washington, D.C. market prior to following his passion for gardening and sustainable landscapes.