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“Should I Prune Now or Wait?”

November 26, 2008

When to prune is one of the top 10 questions I get. (Hmmm…maybe I should do a top ten list for the end of the year. Anyone want to read that? Anyone want to hazard putting out a question to see if it makes the top ten?) Okay, back on topic — when should you prune.

Fragrant Winter Blooming Dawn Viburnum

Fragrant Winter Blooming Dawn Viburnum

Honestly, there’s no perfect, single answer to this question. The plant’s habit, the environment, your tolerance for what things look like, and your time availability can all impact the answer. What I can tell you are a few basic rules about pruning timing:

  • When does your plant flower? If your plant flowers in early winter, then it will have all its flowers set by summer. So, don’t prune it in fall or you’ll miss the flowers. Best to prune it right after it finishes blooming. Or, take a few cuttings while the plant is blooming in mid-winter to enjoy indoors as a reminder that spring is on the way!
  • Is your plant frozen? You can prune in the middle of winter when plants are frozen, but I usually wait. Branches hold water through the winter and can become very fragile and brittle in very cold weather. It’s easy to make a bad break during these times.
  • Shearing hedges: I’ve said it so many times before that I won’t go into much here, but shearing is best left until late winter/early spring just before the plant really pops into new growth. If you cut it in fall or early winter, you’ll be looking at ugly cuts all winter long. And, if the plant responds to your cuts with new growth in winter, you may have some dead spots when that delicate new growth gets zapped in a freeze.
  • When do I prune my apple/cherry/plum/peach/raspberries and other fruiting plants? I get this question often, and there is more than one answer to when to prune fruiting plants. I like to clean out raspberries in late winter and many fruit trees as well. But, disease infestations, specific cultivars and more can play into the answer. Best to work with a coach to work on your specifics!
  • Cleaning out the dead: This is something you can do just about any time. If your plant has lots of dead branches, is filled with dead leaves or has lots of suckers coming up from the ground, get out there whenever you can and work on cleaning things up. Keep in mind the rule about freezing weather, but this is a great winter chore when plants have lost their leaves and their form and structure is beautifully visible.
  • I have the time to do something now not in February: Time is something that comes at a premium for all of us. If you find yourself with a couple of hours to focus on the garden, then go for it. Just keep the rules above in mind and keep yourself bundled up, warm and dry.

If I managed to leave out a specific pruning question of yours, please let me know. Also, keep in mind these are just some general recommendations. What to prune and when to prune can be much more complicated and may require a site visit to evaulate.


  1. Jutta van Doornick says:

    I have a lot of ARBUTUS trees on my property which I leave alone..
    Unfortunately there are 3 of them which will block my ocean view very soon. When and how can I trim them?
    Now they are between 8′ and 12′ high, very healthy leaves. At the moment they look more like huge shrubs and grow at a bluff of the edge of my property.
    Thank you so much for your advice!
    Hello from BC Canada

  2. rhaglund says:


    Thanks for writing in. I love the genus arbutus. Given your location I’m going to guess these are Pacific madrona trees, which will get quite large.

    When I’m asked about dealing with trees that will “block views”, I start by asking you to change your mindset and think of them as part of your view. With proper pruning to open the trees up so they have strong open branching rather than thick, shrubby growth, they can significantly enhance the view.

    So, the first thing to do is never top them. When you top a tree, one thing that happens is you remove the hormone that controls the buds on the remaining portions of the tree or shrub. The tippy-top buds excrete a hormone that tells every bud lower on the branch when to bud out. If you remove that hormone, the buds go uncontrolled-crazy. So, in response to removing (say) one branch that’s in your view, you may get two or twenty that grow back to replace it. And, those new branches grow quickly and often without forming strong attachment points, so they can become hazardous. And, they can make the tree very shrubby and dense. So, you end up blocking your view even more and creating more work for yourself managing the thick growth that may become problematic if left on the tree. Plus, the new growth that forms this way never has the beautiful grace of the natural tree form. There’s more, but I think you get the picture.

    So, what DO you do?

    I suggest you work on pruning out some of the interior branches to create “windows” through the tree as it grows. Start by cutting out all of the dead material from the interior of the tree. Once that is removed, then begin selectively pruning out crossing, downward-facing and rubbing branches. When they cross and face downward, they can “distrupt” the beautiful form of the tree’s look. When they rub, they can open up sites for pest and disease to enter. Plus, rubbing branches will eventually fuse together making it even more difficult to remove them.

    As you remove living material from the tree, keep count of how much you have removed. You do not want to take more than 1/4-1/3 of a tree out in any one growing year. Plus, it is important to know where to make your cuts. I suggest hiring a local horticulturist or arborist to teach you proper pruning cuts the first time. If you make your cuts in the wrong place or if you use dull or non-sterile tools, you run the risk of inviting pests and disease into the plant.

    The last thing you do is look at “shaping” the plant. Again, don’t cut away at the tips. Remove branches to the point where they originate off of another branch. Step back from your work and selectively remove branches to create your windows so you can see through the tree.

    I hope this helps. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to remove a little each year, never remove the top and to learn how to make proper cuts with proper sterilized tools. These are lessons a certified arborist or a certified horticulturist in your area may be able to teach you.

    For further reading, check out the Plant Amnesty Regional Pruning guides, which area available for free online at: http://www.plantamnesty.org/PRUNING/info.aspx

    Please let me know how it goes. If you have additional questions or thoughts on this issue, please share!

  3. […] on when to prune (or not prune) here. rhaglund posted this entry on Monday, January 26th, 2009 at 10:11 pm. Posted in the category […]

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