Pruning 101

Cary, NC

To Prune or Not to Prune

To prune or not to prune is a question that often comes up in gardening discussions. When is the right time of year, and just how far back should a plant be pruned? For a concept that seems fairly simple in theory, these questions leave lots of room for doubt. So how do you know what and when to prune? Here are some general rules:


Right now, we are sitting on the fence between two seasons. It's not quite full winter anymore, yet not quite spring, either. Deciduous plants are still without their leaves, evergreens are resting, and perennials have died back to the ground. This is a good time of year to prune some plants.

For many plants, time of year really does make a difference in successful pruning. Pruning is an invigorating process that stimulates plants to put out new growth. If you stimulate growth at the wrong time of year, such as fall or early winter, a plant will be encouraged to develop new and tender branches that are easily susceptible to weather damage.  A plant expends energy to grow these branches that typically break in a windstorm and have minimal flowering and fruiting capabilities. Simply by waiting to prune until late winter or early spring, a gardener can reduce the number of tender, susceptible sprouts on a tree or shrub.

Always prune a spring-flowering shrub after it blooms. Pruning in winter would eliminate its spring blooms.

Evergreen, non-flowering shrubs can be pruned at any time, however if they are pruned in the spring they will have a chance to put out new growth and get fuller before the following winter.

Dead, Damaged, or Diseased

Dead, damaged, or diseased wood can be pruned out of plants anytime of year. It is important to remove such branches as soon as they are discovered. Dead or damaged branches become easy targets for insects and also allow for the entry of diseases. And once a disease infects a plant, it will continue to spread to healthy tissue unless removed.


With pruning, develop a less-is-more methodology. Prune only if you need to. Choose plants that reach their desired height and shape with minimal pruning.

Remove suckers at the base of trees. Also remove crossing branches from the center of small trees and shrubs back to a main branch or trunk. Branches that cross and rub across each other cause damage to plant tissue, thus allowing insects and diseases a way in.

When pruning limbs and branches, prune back to about a one-quarter inch above a bud using a slanting cut. The bud is where new growth occurs. A slanting cut will help keep the pruned area dry after a rain.

Never prune back more than one-third of a shrub. Too much pruning will shock a plant, and can cause death.

Ornamental grasses should be cut back to a few inches above the ground before they put out new growth in the spring.

Large Trees

Large trees should always be pruned by a certified arborist. Trained arborists will take care to only prune if needed, and in the correct manner. They also have all the necessary equipment and experience to prevent injury to yourself or your property.

Care Tip

Once you've finished pruning, it's a good idea to use an anti-bacterial spray on your pruners before putting them away. This will help prevent bacterial diseases from spreading.

For more tips on pruning, stop by the garden center. Our friendly experts are on hand seven days a week with answers to all your gardening questions.