Winter Pruning


Pruning is one of the best things you can do for the overall health of your trees, shrubs and vines. The best time to prune varies for different species. A general rule of thumb is to prune summer and fall flowering trees and shrubs in late winter, about a month to six weeks before the spring thaw, while they are dormant, and prune spring flowering trees and shrubs soon after they bloom. Pruning in late winter prepares the plant for vigorous spring growth, minimizing wound exposure. It is also easy to see what needs to be removed when the skeleton of the tree is exposed.

A word of caution:  if you can’t reach the highest limbs with a pole pruner, you may want to call in a professional. If your tree is growing near a power line, definitely call a professional.


Pruning in Late Winter

As long as you limit your pruning to 1/3 of the plant’s size, its hard to go too far wrong with pruning. A young tree or shrub should be limited to 1/4 of the size. A bad pruning job will grow out, so go ahead and practice. Here are some simple pruning tips:

  • maintain pruning to 1/3 of the plant’s size or less;
  • start by removing any dead or damaged branches;
  • remove old or excessively long branches or those interfering with human movement;
  • pruningon fruit trees, prune all water sprouts, which are the shoots which grow straight up from the tree;
  • remove limbs crossing over another limb or growing inward to the center of the tree;
  • if a tree grows two leaders, remove one;
  • remove suckers, the upright sprouts which come from the base of the tree or shrub or rise from the ground surrounding it, unless you want a shrub to get wider;
  • thin out upper limbs of dense shade trees to open them up;
  • prune young trees sparingly;
  • you don’t need to treat wounds during winter pruning;
  • allow ornamental trees and shrubs to maintain their natural shape;
  • thin and contain the size of shrubs by removing up to a third of the branches from the lowest growing point rather than give an overall haircut, which only shortens it and brings more density, promoting poor health – you can always shorten it after thinning it, bearing in mind not to remove more than a third of the overall plant size;
  • vines blooming on new wood can be pruned to about 12 inches for the first couple years to develop a strong root system, then down about a third from the top;

pruned tree

Pruning Tools

toolsI have three trees and a few small shrub and flower gardens, and have invested in some good quality pruning tools to keep them healthy. Nothing is going to entirely prevent that feeling, the day after heavy pruning, that you can’t lift your arms above your head if you overdo it with a pair of loppers, but well designed, sharp tools will drastically reduce the wear and tear on your body. Buying the best tools you can afford is a good investment, for the good of your trees and shrubs as well as your muscles.

Pruning tools can spread disease from one tree to another, but can be disinfected in one part bleach to nine parts water, then well dried. Keep them clean and sharp before putting them away every time, and the tools, and your trees and shrubs, will last for many many years.

Hand Pruners

  • this is my most used pruning tool;
  • look for:
    • an ergonomic design to reduce hand strain;
    • high-carbon steel replaceable blades;
    • aluminum handles with cushioned grips;
    • easy to clean;
    • locking mechanism;
  • lighter and more maneauverable than loppers or shears;
  • great for making precision snips and thinning out small unwanted branches;
  • cuts soft wood up to 3/4 of an inch diameter and old wood up to a 1/2 inch;
  • cut small branches a quarter inch above a healthy side bud at a 45 degree angle;
  • Felco F-2 Classic Manual Hand PrunerBypass Pruners:

    • bypass pruners use a scissoring action whereby a curved cutting blade severs the branch as it passes the base;
    • best for use on green and growing stems of flowering shrubs, woody perennials and roses;
    • while the Felco F-2 Classic Manual Hand Pruner comes highly recommended, my personal favorite is my Felco F-6 Classic Pruner For Smaller Hands, better suited for a woman’s small or medium sized hands;
  • Ratchet Hand Pruners 3 Stage Action - The Gardener's Friend - Lightweight Ergonomic Design, Left Or Right Handed - Prune Small Branches To 1inch- Ideal For Those With Carpal Tunnel, ArthritisAnvil Pruners:

    • use a splitting action with a wedge shaped top blade;
    • ideal for dried out branches and old wood;
    • ratchet anvil pruners are easier for people with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or arthritis to us, or people with weak hands;
    • to work the ratchet simply click repeatedly until the branch is severed, usually 3 or 4 times;

Hedge Shears

  • Bahco P51-F Hedge Shears with Steel Handles, 3-Inchlook for:
    • ergonomic design, especially to ease in overhead muscle strain;
    • comfortable grips;
    • good carbon steel replaceable blades;
    • shorter length overall makes it easier to maneauver and use;
    • durable stops
  • suitable for anything under the size of a pencil (1/4 inch or less in diameter);
  • serrated blades hold branches closest to the sharpest inner part of the blade;
  • straight edge blades make the cleanest cuts and are easy to sharpen;
  • use for soft new growth, or to deadhead large groups of perennials like lavender to encourage rebloom;


  • Fiskars Consumer Prod 91546935 Powergear 32-Inch Bypass Loppermy bypass loppers are my second most used tool next to my hand pruners;
  • click link in picture at right for further detail and to view videos showing the use of these loppers in pruning;
  • look for:
    • lightweight fibreglass or aluminum handles;
    • good rubber stoppers;
    • comfortable grips;
    • ergonomic design;
  • available in bypass or anvil like hand pruners (watch for ratchet action in anvil pruners);
  • extended length of up to 36″ makes it well suited for reaching into dense shrubs or higher overhead than hand pruners or shears;
  • good for larger branches not big enough to need a saw, 1 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter;
  • great for fruit trees and vines;
  • often used on branches requiring several cuts;

Fine Toothed Pruning Saws

  • Corona RS 7265 Razor Tooth Folding Pruning Saw, 10inch Curved Bladelook for:
    • tri-cut blades, sharpened on three sides, for faster and easier cutting;
    • folding saws are easy to store and carry around;
    • blades that can be sharpened;
    • replaceable blades;
    • comfortable handles;
    • some can be attached to an extension pole to use as a pole pruner;
  • actual pruning saws, as opposed to regular saws, are designed with sticky branches in mind, so are less likely to gum up and bind;
  • a traditional orchard saw has a 12-16 inch blade and pistol style handle, and are designed to slide back and forth, with the teeth cutting on the easier pull stroke;
  • cutsfor larger branches too big to hold in your hand:
    • undercut half way to prevent tearing;
    • cut from above a bit outside of the first cut;
    • cut straight down from above parallel to the collar, leaving the branch collar;

Corona Clipper TP 6881 Arborist Tree Pruning System - 6 to 12 ftPole or Rope Pruners and Saws

  • for reaching overhead or into large branches or trees;
  • pole saws can be difficult to handle and hard on the shoulders, but are useful for the odd higher branch;
  • some pruning saws will attach to extension poles;
  • the set pictured at right has interchangeable heads, and the poles can be used separately or combined or extra extension (click picture for details);

Video:  How to Properly Prune Fruit Trees

Trees and Shrubs to Prune in Late Winter/Early Spring, While Dormant

Here is a list of some of the trees and shrubs best pruned while they are still dormant.

  • peach treeApple Tree
  • Barberry
  • Beauty Berry
  • Blueberries
  • Bradford Pear 
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Caryopteris
  • Clethra
  • Crape Myrtle 
  • Flowering Dogwood 
  • Flowering Plum 
  • Glossy Abelia
  • Golden Rain Tree 
  • Honeysuckle
  • Hydrangea *arborescens
  • Hydrangea, Peegee 
  • Itea
  • Japanese Kerria
  • Peach Tree (closer to spring)
  • Pear Tree
  • Potentilla 
  • Raspberries
  • Redbud 
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Smoke Tree
  • Tamarix
  • Viburnum (berry bearing)
  • Vitex
  • Wisteria 
  • Witch Hazel
  • Other summer flowering trees
  • Most other fruit trees
  • Hybrid tea, old fashioned, and most climbing roses
  • Vines blooming on new wood

*some varieties of Hydrangea are not suitable for late winter pruning.

Trees and Shrubs to Prune in Late Spring/Summer, After Blooming

  • azaleaAzalea
  • Beautybush 
  • Bridal Wreath Spirea
  • Flowering Crabapple 
  • Forsythia
  • Gardenia
  • Hawthorn
  • Hydrangea, Bigleaf 
  • Lilac 
  • Magnolia 
  • Mockorange 
  • Mountain Laurel 
  • Rhododendron 
  • Serviceberry
  • Slender Deutzia
  • Weigela 
  • Spring flowering shrubs and trees
  • Once blooming roses
  • Bleeding trees that produce sap, such as maples, elms, dogwoods
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