Flower Gardening

It’s Time to Prune Trees and Shrubs

By Jean Starr


A good time to prune trees and shrubs is any period before mid-April (north of the Ohio River). When woody plants are dormant is the easiest time to see signs of insects and disease, and it’s also the easiest time to remove stems and branches. Regardless of where you live, pruning should be conducted before leaves unfurl so you can see the plant’s structure and the issues that may be waiting to injure it.

While some jobs are best left to the professionals, this article addresses those pruning chores that an amateur gardener can do for him or herself. Oh, yes, and while you are preparing for the pruning party, it won’t hurt to bring along a strong set of clippers, a good pair of loppers and a sharp pruning saw.

If it’s time to prune trees and shrubs identify specifically what needs is to be pruned

The first thing to consider before pruning is the identity of the tree or shrub. An overgrown lilac won’t bloom in springtime if it is severely pruned in winter. The same holds true for any spring blooming shrub, including Viburnum, Forsythia, and flowering quince; or trees such as crabapple, redbud and serviceberry. If possible, pruning should be done on these plants after they bloom. But if you see crossed branches, sucker growth or watersprouts, they should be taken care of now.

When it’s time to prune trees and shrubs, start with suckers and watersprouts

Suckers are straight, unbranched stems that sprout from the plant’s root system, appearing around the base of a tree or shrub. They are easy to recognize when formed by a single-stemmed tree like a crabapple, but they will be smooth and lighter in color than the desired stems.

According to Rosie Lerner, Extension Consumer Horticulture Specialist, Purdue University, the succulent growth put out by suckers and watersprouts is often susceptible to disease and insects. It’s best to keep up with their removal on a regular basis, and a warmish winter day is the perfect time. Regardless, they should be removed any time they’re spotted. The earlier these vigorous shoots are removed, the better, so don’t feel you must wait until the tree or shrub is dormant. Remove suckers at or just below the soil line using sharp pruning shears.

Flowering quince should be checked for sucker growth (photo by Jean Starr)

Watersprouts are especially easy to spot on dormant trees and shrubs. These unbranched, vertical shoots emerge at right angles to branches. They should be pruned back to their point of origin, avoiding injury to the remaining branch. Be careful to not leave a stub.

Watersprouts on Chinese Dogwood  (photo by Jean Starr)

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