MASTER GARDENER: The what, why, when and how of pruning

There are reasons why we prune: damage, disease, appearance and fruit production. It is also a way to help maintain a shrub's desired appearance in our yards.

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A topic I'm often asked about is why, when and how to prune trees and shrubs. There are reasons why we prune: damage, disease, appearance and fruit production. It is also a way to help maintain a shrub's desired appearance in our yards.

If you have a large tree that has some damage, such as a broken limb, I highly suggest that unless you can reach the branch and remain standing on the ground, that you hire a professional to do the work.

YouTube has a lot of videos, of people — mostly men — standing on ladders with saws in hand, crashing down to the ground. Leave it to the pros who have the equipment and tools to do the job properly and safely.

When to prune depends on what the plant is. Most often, early spring is the best time as plants are in their dormant stage. A lot of guides tell us to prune in late March, but for our area, it's sometimes not very practical due to too much snow. The best time is before the leaf buds start to open.

Evergreens require little to no pruning. Someone once told me that spruce and fir trees can be pruned whenever you have a sharp knife. True to some extent because they grow continuously. If you cut off the end of a branch, lateral growth will continue.


Pines are a bit different as they grow only from the tips of the branches. Control the size of the tree by cutting the new growth only. Evergreens have a tendency to have dead branches on the bottom. Remove those branches near the tree trunk leaving 1/4- to 1/2-inch of the branch.

Pruning to promote the growth of flowers or fruits is another important task. Fruit trees should be pruned yearly; early spring is the best time.

Prune to make the tree easy to harvest, to keep its health, to improve air circulation and to allow the sun to reach the fruit. If your fruit tree needs more attention, look up a "How to" for the specific tree, or hire a professional. Eventually, pruning will produce more and better fruit.

Some parts of the plant to prune are easily identifiable. New growth around the base of the tree should all be removed. Water sprouts-branches that grow straight up from the branches-serve no purpose. Broken or damaged branches where two branches are rubbing against other should be removed.

Pruning shrubs is not as critical as pruning trees. We prune shrubs to control their size and shape. You can thin them by removing some branches. You can shape them by cutting back the tops and sides. In some cases, where the plant was damaged or has just gotten too big for the space it was intended, you can cut all the branches down nearly to the ground. In most cases, new growth will appear and the shrub will start growing again.

If you're going to try pruning, make sure your tools are sharp, you wear gloves and safety glasses and stay off ladders.

I know that all seems like a lot of information, but I have just touched the surface of the what, why, when and how of pruning. You can use reliable websites such as or consult with area experts.

Or, if you feel adventurous, just start pruning and see what happens! My personal motto is "prune aggressively." In most cases, that has worked out.


These local garden articles will reach you each week throughout the gardening season, but gardening information can be found year-round by clicking on "Yard and Garden” at the University of Minnesota Extension website,, or by visiting our Facebook page at

Local Master Gardeners will respond to questions via voicemail. Call (218) 444-7916 and leave your name, number and question.

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