This is a subject, and chore, that I really enjoy. A lot of good can come of proper pruning procedures. I’ll hit some highlights, and if you need any more info, let me know.

Lots of folks are really afraid to prune at all. I’ve worked for many of them thru the years. Here’s the thing. If you’ve paid good money for a tree/shrub, and you want it to do it’s best, then you need to learn (before you buy) how and when to prune. Plants in the woods get scrubbed on, limbs broken off, parts are chewed/eaten, and even sat on, and the plants thrive. Nature isn’t easy! Stop being afraid of your shrub!

Don’t wait until a tree has been in the ground years before starting to prune and shape it. If you start when they are young, there will be far less need when they get older. I’m not a fan of fancy shapes, preferring instead to prune with the natural shape of the plant. The shrub/tree will be much happier too. Did you know that a plant has preferences? Most everything we know about Nature tells us that there are common genetic preferences in all things alive, including plants. You would never expect a nandina to become a tree, or a sycamore to stay under 20 ft. yet people plant with no thought for the mature size of the plant. Why would you plant an oak or maple under a powerline? Or against a foundation? Correct pruning goes along with correct choice of the plant-to-the-site.

What about tools? Hand (by-pass) pruners, loppers, pruning saw, a sharp, curved knife, and some disinfectant are bare basics. Keep tools clean, disinfected, and sharp so as not to pass disease or cause undue damage to the plant. Carry a small bucket of soapy water, with a bit of bleach in it, to dip your pruners in occasionally, especially if you know you’ve been working in a diseased plant.


Deadheading: removal of spent blossoms of flowering plants, to encourage continued blooming.

Heading back: cutting back the main branches of a shrub/tree by at least half their length: I don’t do this because I feel it does more harm than good — to promote new growth.

Limbing up: removing the lower branches of mature trees … also known as “raising the canopy.”

Pinching: removing the growing tip of a plant to encourage formation of bushy growth and improve blooming.

Pollarding: a special form of pruning to develop a formal shape or restrict the crown of a mature tree.

Thinning out: removing entire branches flush with the trunk or a lateral branch; is not normally growth-stimulating. This works very well with ornamental pear trees.

Topping: drastic cutting back of large branches of a mature tree, often shearing is used as well. This practice is not recommended. It can result in a “witches’ broom” which creates far more problems than you had. That’s excessive crisis growth to make up the surface area where photosynthesis (food factory) occurs. One troublesome branch becomes a hundred weak ones!

Shearing: a smooth cut across a flat plane — as with a hedge — stimulates bushy growth.

Ideally, the best time to prune most plants is at the end of their dormant season, however summer bloomers should be pruned when their bloom time is done. The same goes for all blooming shrubs, no matter when they bloom. Mature fruit trees should have dead, damaged, or crossing limbs removed during the summer (least likely to cause new growth). Summer pruning discourages new branching in most trees, while winter pruning tends to encourage it. Pruning on a mature, badly overgrown tree should be done over several years to prevent shock, removing no more than ¼-1/3 of overall size at once.

What about conifers? No shearing or topping! Before new shoots turn green in spring, use your fingers to pinch off half of the “candles” (new shoot with growth buds), taking care not to remove the entire candle; doing so would stop any further growth of the branch.

Many shrubs can be pruned hard and come back beautifully. I’ve been places where the summer bloomers are cut almost to the ground in winter. Lilacs, crepe myrtles, even fig trees! In this case it’s not the plants needs that dictate, but health and esthetics.

Don’t be afraid to try, but be observant and patient. Plants are not the same. Learn! Healthy plants will survive your learning.

Sherrie Ottinger, aka: “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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