How to Determine the Best Time to Prune Trees and Garden Shrubs

In general, you should prune when plants are in their dormant or resting period, preceding a time of active growth during which the wound will heal rapidly. The usual time chosen is late winter or early spring. Then cuts have a long time in which to heal before the following winter. Another advantage of dormant-season pruning is that leaves are not present, or not fully grown; it is easier to see what you are doing.

Exceptions are plants that flower in the spring from buds made the previous season. Winter pruning would destroy the current year's bloom. Such plants--the spring-flowering shrubs--should be pruned as soon after their blossom period as possible, in order to give them the maximum time to make new growth on which you will get next spring's flowers.

What to Prune in Late Winter or Early Spring:

  • Narrow-leaved evergreens (conifers) to improve their shape, keep them in bounds, induce bushy growth, or thin out unwanted branches. These include arborvitae, juniper, pine and yew. Details given here.
  • Broad-leaved evergreens grown primarily for foliage rather than flowers, such as box, Japanese holly, euonymus, privet, Escallonias, etc.
  • Summer-flowering shrubs, vines, etc. You will not destroy the coming season's flower buds since they will develop on new growth made after you prune. Included are butterfly bush, crape myrtle, Hills of Snow hydrangea, hydrangea peegee, Chinese hibiscus, rose of Sharon, lantana, oleander, trumpet vine, bittersweet.
  • Frost-injured plants. When danger of further freezing is past, cut away killed parts at your earliest convenience. There is no rush, for the frozen parts do no immediate harm to the remainder of the plant.
  • Shrubs with colorful winter twigs. Shrub types of dogwood, having either red or yellow stems, have brightest coloring on young branches. If you are growing them primarily for their winter effect, rather than summer screening, cut established bushes back severely each spring to promote the most new growth possible.
  • Bush roses (hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, miniatures) to repair winter damage, shape plants to induce flower-bearing shoots. This type of rose blooms on new growth.
  • Climbing roses, which should have only winter-killed parts removed at this time, because in most types blooms develop on shoots arising from old wood. Any cane that has lived through the winter is a potential source of flowers, and therefore precious. For details see the article on roses.

What to Prune After Flowering:

  • Shrubs or vines that have their flowers in spring, such as forsythia, flowering dogwood, crab apple, rhododendron, azalea, lilac, wisteria.
  • Climbing roses. For details see the article on roses.