When to Prune Your Shrubs & Trees: The Ultimate Guide

Last update: 4 days ago

Reading Time: 7 mins

pruning shrubs and trees

Shutterstock / By chanchai plongern

The gardening task which most gardeners dread, especially those new to gardening, is often pruning plants. It can be overwhelming trying to figure out how and when to begin pruning. The primary concern is that we will take too much of the plant off.

However, pruning is not as difficult or intimidating as one might expect. By the end of this guide, you will have the knowledge and confidence to rein in every unruly plant in your garden.

Why we do it

Pruning the plants in your garden can bring many benefits. For instance, it encourages new growth, can increase the amount of fruit growing on trees, helps you fight plant diseases, and is one of the main ways to enhance the overall look of your garden. But the benefits of pruning are not limited to those already mentioned. Read below to find out more about what pruning can do for your garden.

Grow more fruit


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Properly pruning a fruit-bearing tree or shrub opens up the canopy, which improves the plant’s ventilation and lets more light shine through. This gives the plant enough space and energy to grow more buds and flowers in the spring. With its healthy branches and buds, the tree or shrub will be able to produce larger fruits and more of them at a time.

Create a beautiful garden


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Pruning has traditionally also been used to alter and improve the shape of plants. When done correctly, this can greatly enhance the decorative qualities of the plants in your garden. As pruning helps plants divert their energy to the healthiest branches and stems, it can also help them reach their full potential, resulting in vibrant and plentiful blooms.

Grow healthy plants


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Leaving diseased or dead leaves and branches on your plants is okay if you hate plants. But, if you want your garden to exude vitality and flourish, you should regularly remove parts which are dead or show signs of disease. Allowing such plant parts to remain attached is an open invitation for pests, parasites, and disease to gain a foothold on the already weakened plants.

Restrict the size of plants


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More and more people throughout the UK are reclaiming any available space they can to start a their own gardens. You, however, may only have a small courtyard, a balcony, or a few window boxes to work with. Pruning plants will allow you to control their size, which also gives you space to grow even more plants.

To make fancy shapes


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As mentioned previously, pruning is the best way to mould shrubs and trees into any shape you want. With time, patience, and proper pruning, you can create some truly marvelous garden masterpieces, ranging from simple shapes to more complicated forms, such as dragons.

Revive old/overgrown plants


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A lot of gardens contain at least one old or neglected plant. Many peoples first thought is to uproot the plant and replace it with a younger version. While this is definitely an option, it is a shame to destroy a well-established plant if it can be brought back to its former glory. Pruning can easily help you achieve this. Removing older branches and stems will give the plant the energy it needs to grow anew.

For safety reasons


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Trees with diseased or rotten branches can pose a threat to the health and safety of yourself, your family, and your neighbours. Falling branches can also cause expensive damage to properties and cars. If you don’t want to remove the entire tree, the best option would be to prune the affected branches.
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Pruning tools you need

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Just like with any hobby or DIY task, it helps to have the right tools for the job. Pruning tools come in many shapes, sizes, and forms, ranging from basic tools for general pruning to more specialised tools for specific tasks.

While you can use basic tools to complete most pruning tasks, you may feel more comfortable using specialised tools in case you are not confident in using ladders or if you are unable to grip tools for an extended period of time.

Garden scissors


A pair of good garden scissors is an essential tool for all gardeners. They are perfect for pruning delicate plants and shrubs. Garden scissors are particularly suited for cutting flowers and removing dead flower heads.

Secateurs


Secateurs are, essentially, heavy-duty garden scissors. They are mostly used to prune shrubs with tougher stems, such as roses. To avoid accidents, and for easier use, it is recommended to buy a pair which will comfortably fit in your hand. If you cannot find an appropriate pair, there are adjustable versions available on the market as well.

Secateurs and the next tool on the list come in two varieties. These types are called a bypass and an anvil, respectively. Bypass secateurs work in the same way as scissors, with two blades passing each other. This results in a clean cut, which is most suited to pruning more delicate plants.

Anvil secateurs consist of one blade, which closes on a flat metal surface. They are perfect for plants with thicker and tougher stems.

Related: How to Choose Gardening Gloves

Loppers


Loppers are basically strong secateurs with long handles. The extra length allows you to exert much more pressure with both hands when cutting thicker branches. They are perfect for cutting smaller tree branches or stems in hard to access areas, such as the centre of a thorny bush.

Cut and hold pruners


This tool will not only cut what you need it to, but will also hold on to the branch or stem that has been cut. This means that you don’t have to continuously bend over to pick up plant trimmings. This makes them perfect for people with limited mobility who still want to enjoy gardening.

Pruning saws


As trees contain an abundance of sticky sap, it can be difficult to cut through branches with a normal handsaw – the blade will get stuck and you will waste a lot of energy to constantly retrieve it. The teeth on the blade of a pruning saw are specially designed to resist sap and easily cut through green living wood, with many of them also sawing when you pull the saw towards yourself.

There are many variations of pruning saws available. Some look like a carpenter’s saw, while others may fold into a handle. When choosing a pruning saw, spend some time handling them and choose the one which feels most comfortable in your hand.

Tree pruning systems


These specialised tree pruning tools come with telescopic handles that you can use to extend them in order to reach higher branches. A variety of attachments are available here, including a collection of interchangeable saws and loppers to tackle branches of varying thickness. Other all-in-one tree pruning tools are also available, these consist of a telescopic pole, a heavy duty saw, and a pull-cord controlled lopper.

They are the perfect option if you don’t like the idea of cutting branches while perilously perched on a set of ladders.

Multi-change systems


Multi-change systems are the garden equivalent of a multi-tool. The interchangeable handles and heads make them an excellent all-around gardening tool. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a selection of specialised tools, this is the option for you. Multi-change systems give you the flexibility to tackle a wide range of tasks with a single tool.

Caring for your tools

To get the most from your tools and prevent the spread of plant diseases, it is incredibly important to properly clean your garden tools after using them. To disinfect your tools, either use a commercial product or mix one part household bleach with nine parts water and carefully clean the handles and blades.

If you read, or have read, any old gardening books, it is likely that you have seen that it is recommended to apply pruning paint to new cuts or wounds on trees that are larger than three inches. Pruning paint was traditionally used to seal fresh tree wounds  in order to ward off disease and pests. With the passage of time and the accumulation of new knowledge, however, this practice dropped out of popularity. It is now common to be advised to leave the tree wound open and let it heal naturally so long as you prune the tree at the right time of year.

This is another reason why it is important to keep your garden tools clean. Diseases can easily spread from plant to plant if you prune them using an infected tool.

Pruning plants according to their type

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Regardless of how far we have progressed as a species and how much control we can exert over our environment, the fact remains that there is an innate rhythm present in nature. Working against this natural rhythm in your garden can have disastrous consequences as some plants may die or fail to produce fruit.

Many new gardeners often ask themselves ‘What is the best time to prune?’. Generally, the best time to prune trees and shrubs is August as most plants have finished growing for the year and there will be enough time for fresh wounds to heal before the colder weather arrives. However, there are exceptions to this general rule and the most prominent exceptions have to do with the evergreen and deciduous species.

Evergreen trees and shrubs


Evergreens, such as Fir trees, Juniper plants, and Pine trees, are plants which do not lose their leaves during autumn and winter. The best time to prune members of the evergreen tree and shrub family is in the spring. Pruning them in August, or even closer to winter, will only lead to them dying out in the cold weather.

Deciduous trees and shrubs


Deciduous trees and shrubs are plants which shed their leaves as the weather cools down. Good examples of this are Chestnut trees and Hydrangea shrubs. The ideal time to prune members of the deciduous family is either at the end of the growing season in August or during the winter months, when the plant is in a dormant state. Avoid pruning flowering and fruit-producing plants in the spring as you run the risk of preventing the plant from blooming or giving fruit.

The plant world is one of endless variety and differing requirements. As such, certain plants may have a more specific pruning timeframe. For more information on the requirements of specific plants, check the comprehensive list put together by the team at  UK Gardening.

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Prune plants according to their age

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The age of plants also plays a vital role in how you prune them. Young plants have different requirements than their older relatives.

Pruning young plants


Pruning from an young age is quite beneficial to plants and is commonly known as formative pruning. It promotes healthy and balanced growth, and also allows you to control the general shape in which it will grow into.

  • Young evergreens do not require pruning while during their development.
  • Young deciduous plants benefit greatly from formative pruning during the early stages of growth as they produce a lot of shoots that spread in all directions.
  • All young plants can benefit from the removal of overly long or sickly shoots, regardless of their type.
  • It is much easier to correct lopsided growth through pruning while the plant is still young.

Pruning old plants


Pruning older plants to revitalise them is best done during the winter while the plant is dormant.

  • Start by cutting out any dead, diseased, or crossing stems and branches.
  • Next, reduce the number of remaining stems by half.
  • You will notice that the plant is much stronger and more vibrant in the following spring.
  • Certain shrubs, such as Philadelphus, respond incredibly well to severe pruning. Any plant which responds well to extreme pruning should be cut back to just above ground level. This will let the plant re-establish itself with new shoots.
  • If you are not sure if a plant can survive a severe pruning, take a cutting first so that you can easily regrow the plant.

So there we have it, your guide on when to prune your plants. With the right tools and a little bit of common sense, the dreaded task of pruning will not be as scary as you may have thought. Remember to always clean and disinfect your garden tools after use and follow the natural rhythm of the plants in your garden. By doing this and using this guide as a stepping stone, your flourishing garden will soon become the envy of all your neighbours.

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Did we miss anything? Do you have any pruning tips? Let us know in the comments below or give us a shout on social media!

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