tips + how-tos

Trees and Shrub Winter Pruning Guide

As the last of our leaves fall outside, I am constantly taking in the structure of the trees and shrubs in our yard. Because those naked limbs reveal so much that was hidden all year, I can’t help but be tempted to start cutting a little here and there well before it’s time for winter pruning.

Pruning helps maintain a plant’s shape and can actually prolong the life of it. Removing dead or diseased parts can help keep it healthy. It can also help plants continue to flower and fruit.

Timing is key when it comes to winter pruning. Basically, avoid pruning pretty much everything in the fall unless there is some kind of plant emergency. Pruning can stimulate new growth. During the fall, plants should be hardening off growth from the spring and summer to guard against winter injury. You pretty much want to wait to prune until plants have gone fully dormant. This usually doesn’t occur until there has been some prolonged cold temperature.

Here in the south, many of us just had our first freeze (or near freeze). It has been an unseasonably warm and dry fall. Even though winter dormancy is still a little ways off, my mind is already on winter pruning, planning out what needs some help.

tree and shrub winter pruning

When you should prune:

The goal of pruning is to train and invigorate new growth. Because of this, pruning in the mid to late winter is ideal for many plants. It helps the plants flush out with abundant growth during the spring. Plus, on deciduous shrubs and trees, you are able to see the limb structure much better without leaves giving you a better look at how the plant is growing.

Mid to late winter varies based on your climate. Aim for 4-6 weeks prior to your last average frost date. I will cheat this on occasion and prune a little early if we have had a particularly warm winter (which is happening more often these days).

Never prune when it is wet outside. Disease spreads much easier in wet weather. Wait until things have dried out before pruning.


Plants that like a winter pruning


Camellia (after blooming)
Hydrangea panuculata and arborescens (only remove flowers on H. macrophylla)
Roses – Late Winter right before buds break
Rose of Sharon
Smoke Bush


Bald Cypress
Crape Myrtle
Honey Locust

Fruit trees:

Stone fruits:

Pome fruits:



Don’t prune:

Spring and early summer flowering trees and shrubs


Basic pruning tools:

winter pruning tools

Hand Pruners – Use for small easy cuts

Loppers – Use for branches 2-3 inches in diameter

Pruning Saw – Use for branches up to 5-6 inches

Hedge Sheers – Use for clipping and shaping evergreens

Pole Saw / pruner – Use for branches that are up out of reach. Pruner side for branches 2-3 inches in diameter. Saw side for branches up to 5-6 inches in diameter.

Bucket filled with a disinfectant solution (optional) – 1 part bleach to 9 parts water– Dip pruners to disinfect between cuts.

Basic steps of pruning:


Always pay attention to the amount you are removing. Aim for no more than ¼ of the plant for older larger plants and 1/3 of the plant for younger more vigorous plants.

  1. Start out by removing any dead fruit and limbs as well as any diseased branches. Aim for the 4 D’s: Dead, Dying, Diseased, or Damaged. Clean out this wood then assess what you want to prune to shape the plant.
  2. Start thinning out the plan. Work from the center removing branches that cross and any suckers or water sprouts. Open up and thin out the canopy up some to allow sunlight and air to reach the middle. Take your time. Cut a few branches and step back to check on things.
  3. Begin to give the plant the desired shape by strategically cutting back a few branches where needed.

Be sure to dispose of any diseased or pest ridden branches. After a good pruning, you should expect to see an extra flush of growth in the spring. If you’re a fruit grower, your reward shows up much later in the year, but is just as sweet. A good winter pruning will set up many trees and shrubs for a great year.

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