Pruning Trees and Shrubs

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Knowing where to cut is one part of correct pruning. Image source: Arbor Day Foundation

Valentine’s Day is a great reminder that it’s time to show your trees and shrubs a little love. Many trees and shrubs benefit from late winter pruning to improve their shape and structure. For gardeners this may feel like tough love, but for plants being pruned correctly is no more traumatizing than getting a good haircut. In fact it’s better – a proper pruning job can boost the health and longevity of trees and shrubs as well as make them look better.

Pruning Flowering Trees and Shrubs

In addition to improving their health and structure, flowering trees and shrubs are often pruned to increase their flower display. The correct time to perform this type of pruning depends on when the plant blooms. Summer blooming shrubs such as beautyberry, roses, abelia, clethra, and peegee type hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) are pruned in late winter (February-March). This is because they bloom on new growth. Pruning summer blooming shrubs in late winter can encourage lots of new growth and flowers for the coming season. Crape myrtles can also be pruned in late winter, but more often than not they are pruned incorrectly. Learn how to properly prune a crape myrtle from this Extension Gardener article.

Spring flowering shrubs such as azaleas, camellias, loropetalum, oakleaf hydrangea and mophead type hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) should not be pruned until after they finish flowering. Pruning spring flowering shrubs in late winter will remove their flower buds, which developed last summer and fall. To preserve the spring flower display, avoid winter pruning of trees or shrubs that bloom before Mother’s Day. Make sure to complete pruning of spring bloomers by July 4th to avoid disturbing bud development for next year’s blooms.

Pruning Advice from the Experts

There’s a lot you need to know to do a good pruning job, including when and where to cut, what type of tools to use, and how much to remove. Experts with Cooperative Extension at NC State have developed a series of guides to help you do the job right. Each guide in the four part series explains and illustrates a different aspect of pruning ornamental trees and shrubs correctly. All four are available online:

Pruning Not Always The Answer

Keep in mind not all shrubs need to be pruned on a regular basis. For example, shrubs that have a naturally compact habit, such as dwarf yaupon, dwarf nandina, and ‘Carissa’ holly, only require pruning to remove an occasional stray shoot or broken branch. Other shrubs, such as privet, wax myrtle, glossy abelia, and loropetalum, grow large rapidly. When planted in small landscapes gardeners may try to keep these plants compact by repeatedly pruning them, but in the end it is just a matter of having the wrong plant in the wrong place. If you have a shrub that constantly needs to be pruned because it is too vigorous for the site, the best advice is to move it somewhere else and replace it with a shrub whose mature size fits the location. Search Extension’s ornamental plants database to find trees and shrubs adapted to the space and growing conditions in your landscape.

Learn More!

Correct pruning begins with identifying the tree or shrub you’re pruning. If you’re not sure what type of trees or shrubs are growing in your yard take a sample to your local Cooperative Extension center.

Be sure to collect a sample that includes several leaves attached to the stem as well as any seed pods or flowers that are present. When submitting pictures, take a close up the leaves and any other distinct features of the plant, as well as a mid-range shot to show the overall shape and size of the plant. Only pictures that are clear and focused will be helpful for identifying your plant.

Learn more about pruning fruit trees, grapes and berries from these Extension publications:

Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.

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