Gardening Basics

When and How to Prune Trees and Shrubs

By Amy Grisak


As we’re preparing our yards and gardens for the season, it’s time to consider when and how to prune trees and shrubs. A good pruning is often in order to improve the health, productivity and appearance of these backbones of the landscape.

The key to proper pruning is knowing the best time to prune and how much to cut, and since every plant type is different, it’s important to understand the goal before you step in with sharp instruments in hand.

Clean and prepare your tools

Before beginning any pruning project, have your equipment in good shape so you don’t have to stop mid-way through your efforts, or struggle with tools that won’t cut cleanly. There’s nothing worse than struggling with a branch, or leaving a ragged edge, that not only looks unsightly, but leaves the tree (or shrub) vulnerable to disease. Use a rasp to sharpen pruners, both the hand clippers and loppers, and depending on the size of the branches to be cut, have  a small saw ready to make quick work of the larger limbs.

Another consideration for your tools is cleanliness, and this is particularly so when it comes to fruit trees. Fire blight and other issues can ruin an otherwise healthy tree. Before you begin to use your tools, dip them in a bleach solution (thoroughly drying them with a towel afterwards) or clean them with antibacterial wipes. If fire blight, a bacterial disease, is an issue in your area, wipe the blades after every cut throughout the process of trimming fruit trees. Thankfully, this isn’t typically necessary with ornamental shrubs because they are not as prone to these various disease issues.

Pruning fruit trees

Fruit trees are best pruned while they’re still dormant, often beginning as early as February, and continuing to April, depending on your location. The point is to remove extraneous twigs and branches so the energy of the tree is focused on fruit production.

Before you touch the tree, step back and take a look at it, as you’ll want to consider form as well as function. Look for anything that appears out of place. Remove any dead or damaged branches. Cut-out any branches that cross over one another, grow downwards, or that are just plain in the way. The rule is: if a limb sticks out, and it’s bothersome, cut it off. You can also remove branches that are too long since these gangly appendages will not produce well. Trim them at an angle at the end of a bud. You’ll also want to snip out any water sprouts, suckers, or branches that grow straight up as they typically are not productive. Another rule: don’t remove more than 30% of the tree.

Once this is accomplished, it’s time to shape the tree to a productive form. There are two popular pruning systems for stone fruits (that is, fruits with a pit). One method is called the open-center system. The natural shape of many fruit trees resembles a vase. In this situation, the center is cleared to allow light to reach all of the branches.

Apple Tree Pruned to Open-Center Style – Photo by Amy Grisak

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