Pruning can sound like a daunting task if you’ve never done it before. Where do you cut? What should you cut? What happens if you do it wrong?
The truth is, pruning is much more straightforward than you might think. The key to a good prune lies in understanding the basic methodology and applying your cuts gingerly. With a good tool and some tips from an expert, you’ll be on your way to perfectly pruned trees in no time.
Speaking of experts, we’ve collected some tips and rules of thumb from the pruning masters over at Swansons Nursery. What you'll find below are the basics—everything you need to get going. If you’re new to pruning or need a refresher, this is a great place to start!
While different trees have slightly different pruning principles, there are three universal reasons why we prune:
To redirect growth energy
Snipping a branch tells the tree to send energy to regrow, so we snip where we want to stimulate new growth or change the energy's direction.
To reveal beauty (not create it)
While some types of pruning aim to completely reshape a plant (like topiary), we prune ornamental and fruit trees to reveal natural beauty rather than completely reshape the growth trajectory.
To improve the tree’s health
Trees need light and air circulation to grow. Removing overgrowth and dead or diseased branches gives your tree more room for airflow and allows sunlight to reach the inside branches.
Types of pruning
First, figure out what type of tree you’re pruning. Different trees come with different growth goals: Flowering trees want to produce blossoms, and fruit trees want to produce as much well-developed fruit as possible.
We prune ornamental trees—like dogwoods, flowering cherry trees, magnolias, or Japanese maples—to reveal beauty and maintain the tree’s health. These trees mostly need to be thinned to enhance their natural growth patterns, open up views to the trunk, and remove density that might be weighing the tree down or preventing sunlight from getting in.
The goal of pruning fruit trees is to help the fruit develop. When branches are dense, the inside branches won't get enough sunlight—resulting in not-so-good-tasting fruit. If branches are completely shaded, they can start to die off. Density also creates an environment under the tree’s canopy that can invite insects and disease.
What time of year should I prune?
Timing is important. If you prune too late, your tree may not produce blooms; too early, and your fruit may not taste so good. Choose which season to prune based on your growth goal:
Pruning in winter stimulates more growth than if you were to leave the tree alone—think of it as bottling up the tree’s energy and then releasing it. This makes it the best time for major pruning—removing large branches and lots of density. If the tree is growing too fast and you want to temper it, wait to prune until summer. It's best to prune fruit trees between November and mid-March.
Summer, fall, and spring
These are “fine-tuning” pruning seasons. If you have a flowering tree or shrub, try to prune it at least six months before its blooming month. This allows the tree enough time to develop its flower buds before the next bloom season. If the tree blooms in May, prune between June and September. If it blooms in July, prune in August, September, or in the winter before March. If you do prune within that six-month window, don’t sweat it—you just might have an off-year of blooming but the tree will recover. You can prune dead or dying branches any time of year.
How to prune
Pruning boils down to three basic steps: cleaning, thinning, and shaping. Sometimes your tree may not need all three steps, and that’s OK. It’s important to think about what the tree wants in relation to what you want out of the tree. You may clean out dead branches and find that everything looks open and balanced—in which case, don’t feel the need to keep going. It’s better to do too little than too much.
Find and remove dead or dying branches, broken branches, or branches that are crossing and rubbing other branches (these can cause bruising).
Use your shears gingerly here. Look for places that need more light and breathing room and make the least amount of cuts needed. Work your way around the tree a couple of times to ensure everything stays balanced.
For ornamental trees, think about opening up views of the trunk and unique branches. You can also create layers by lightly thinning between major branches.
What tools to use
We opt for hand-powered tools over power saws—less power means it’s harder to go overboard with your cuts. Here are some typical and trustworthy pruning shears that should cover any size cut:
- Needle nose pruners are most similar to scissors and make tight, close cuts that are best for thin stems.
- Pruning shears can handle branches up to 3/4" in diameter.
- Loppers are good for thicker branches—up to about 1 1/2" in diameter.
- Pruning saws work best on branches greater than 1 1/2" in diameter that are more difficult to cut.
Where and how to make cuts
Always cut close to the bud or branch, and try to get as close to a 45-degree angle as possible. The orientation of the angle is important, too: Make the cut so that the lowest point of the 45-degree angle is on the opposite side of the branch as the bud.
If you’re pruning a branch with two buds directly opposite each other, cut straight across the branch just above the buds.
What else should I know?
There are many different philosophies and adages about how to properly prune. Here are a few of our own:
- Think about what the tree wants to do as well as what you want it to do. Pruning will be more effective if you and the tree can agree on the same goal.
- Work from the inside out and bottom to top (if you can).
- Try to anticipate the direction of future growth.
- Work with hand-powered tools as much as you can. This will help to prevent over-pruning.
- Think about balance—work around the tree a couple of times and take frequent steps back to assess things.
- Always do less than you think you should—you can always do more later, but you can’t put anything back.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that trees are resilient, cyclical beings. If you mess something up (which is relatively difficult to do), things will grow back. Each year is a new opportunity to grow your pruning know-how and finesse your snips.
To get more tips on pruning, check out Swansons’ gardening guide. And for gardening project inspiration to get you ready for the seasons ahead, check out our guide to gardening in planter boxes and these tips for attracting pollinators to your garden.