Pruning 101

By Kristen Castillo

August 3, 2018 6 min read

Every yard needs proper upkeep. Still the idea of pruning plants and trees and snipping flowers can be intimidating. But it doesn't have to be so overwhelming.

Read on as experts share their pro tips for shearing and shaping your greenery.

"Pruning really is an art and timing is everything when it comes to making plants and gardeners happy," says Doug Oster, home and garden editor for

*Follow this Rule

Take your time when trimming.

"Remove crossing branches and inward growing shoots one at a time," says Oster. "Step back with each cut to access the overall look of what's being pruned."

Nate Mason of Monster Tree Service, a national tree care franchise, urges consumers to obey the 25 percent rule: never remove more than 25 percent of a tree or shrub's canopy in one season, or remove more than 25 percent of its foliage on a single branch unless removing the entire branch.

Here's why: many trees will go into shock and respond with suckering if pruned too much in one season.

"Less is more, and you can always take more off, but you cannot put it back," says Mason.

*When to Trim

Timing matters. Mason says late spring is the time to clip needle- and scale-leaf evergreens. Spring-blooming plants like lilac, forsythia, rhododendron and most roses should be snipped post-bloom. Cut boxwoods and privets, too.

In the summer, it's smart to tidy deciduous trees such as maples, birches, elms and dogwoods. These trees produce excessive sap flow when pruned in winter. You can also deadhead flowers and prune overgrown herbaceous plants in the summer.

"Strictly avoid spring and summer pruning of oaks vulnerable to oak wilt and elms vulnerable to Dutch elm disease," says Mason.

During the winter, it's safe to prune other deciduous trees as well as broadleaf evergreens.

Cut back or remove storm-damaged trees, especially any tree or shrub, including ash, oak and elm, which are susceptible to fungal diseases.

Mason says you can also do dormant season pruning for summer-blooming plants, as well as shrubs without showy blooms, fruit trees, broadleaf evergreens and bush berries.

But Oster warns that spring flowering trees and shrubs shouldn't be pruned during winter. "If dogwoods, azaleas, rhododendrons and others are pruned at the wrong time, the buds are being trimmed off," he says. "Without buds, there will be no flowers."

He says dead wood can be pruned any time, especially since insects and disease can harm the plant.

*Tool Time

Make sure you have the right tools for the job.

"A good tool will last a lifetime and when they are sharp will assure a good cut," says Oster, who suggests investing in good pruning shears, loppers and a pruning saw.

Sterilize pruners between plants to minimize the spread of disease. Oster advises using a 10 percent bleach solution or other disinfectant cleaner.

*Learn Proper Technique

Learn the difference between "shearing" and "selective pruning." Mason says you should only shear shrubs that respond well; other trees and shrubs should be selectively hand pruned.

Shorten branches with a cut to a major intersection where the branch forks. He also advises making all pruning cuts just outside the branch collar. That way you don't leave a stub or cut so far into the tree that you create a pruning wound that'll struggle to heal.

Cut larger branches using Mason's "three-cut" technique, which prevents the weight of the pruned branch from ripping a strip of bark off the tree: 1) Make an undercut. 2) Make a top cut a little farther out on the branch. 3) Make a final cut just outside the branch collar to remove the stub.

When pruning trees, minimize danger by not using a ladder taller than an orchard ladder. If you're not sure what to do, consult a professional who can safely prune your trees.

*Just a Pinch

Pinching is the term for trimming flowers.

"There are benefits to pinching flowers instead of simply having them deadhead," says Tatyana Rodriguez, garden blogger at Florence's Flowers.

She says if flowers are pinched correctly, the blooms will yield two to three times their annual flowering. For best results, consistently pinch flowers and make cuts above a set of leaves.

For an annual flowering plant, the blogger suggests waiting to pinch the flowers until the plant is between eight to 10 inches tall. Find the center stalk and cut off two to three inches from the top, right above a set of leaves.

"This signals the plant to start branching from the base which will result in longer stems and more of them," says Rodriguez, who recommends pinching and pruning during the coolest parts of the day, usually morning or evening, when the plants are most hydrated.

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