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Extended winter provides extra pruning time for gardeners

Don Kinzler, Growing Together gardening columnist for The Forum. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 3
This spring’s delay in warm weather gives gardeners extra pruning time. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 3
Pruning shears, loppers and saws are useful tools, depending on branch diameter. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service3 / 3

Mother Nature isn't getting many Facebook 'likes' for this year's spring weather pattern. But in her defense, lack of nice weather gives us more time for dormant season pruning.

Pruning can be stressful until experience is gained. If I prune wrong, will I kill it? What if I cut off too much, or not enough? What will the neighbors think if they're watching, and my trees end up half dead?

There's an old saying in gardening: "Prune until it hurts, and then prune some more." Usually our hesitation results in not pruning enough, until we experience how well it works.

General pruning guidelines

  • Deciduous (leafy) trees and shrubs are best pruned anytime in early spring after winter's coldest temperatures are likely past and before plants leaf out. Light pruning can be done during the growing season, preferably the first half.
  • Evergreens are best pruned in May and June.
  • Use hand-held pruning shears for branches pencil-size in diameter, a lopper-type pruner for branches up to one-inch in diameter and a pruning saw for larger branches. Hedge shears and motorized trimmers are for sheared, formal hedges or shapes rather than most landscape shrubs.
  • Make cuts just above a side branch or bud, without leaving stubs.
  • Let pruning cuts heal naturally without applying paints or sprays.
  • Dead branches can be removed anytime they're discovered.


  • Rejuvenate overgrown, woody, leggy deciduous shrubs like potentilla, ninebark, spirea, lilac and dogwood in early spring by pruning back to about six inches above ground level, which stimulates fresh new growth while eliminating old woody branches.
  • Shrubs that are generally in good vigor might need only shaping or height control.
  • Instead of shearing shrubs into tight ball-shapes, encourage a more natural shape by selectively shortening branches with a hand-held pruner.


  • Don't rush to remove the lower branches of young trees. These branches contribute to the tree's overall growth and health, helping it grow taller and more robust in less time. They can be removed in future years if they hinder mowing, or lower limbs can be left intact if fuller-bodied screening is desired.
  • Most trees are best grown with one single leader, which is the central, tallest, upward-pointing branch. All side branches should be maintained shorter and subordinate to the central leader.
  • Eliminate dangerous 'V' branch arrangements in the top center of the tree, where two equal branches arise from the same point, instead of one central leader. Prune out one, leaving the other as the dominant leader. Central 'Vs' are weak and prone to splitting as trees age.
  • When pruning branches arising from the main trunk or other main branches, instead of cutting perfectly flush, make the cut slightly out, leaving what's called the 'branch collar,' the slightly raised ring that contains healing callous tissue cells.

Apple and other fruit trees

  • Develop young fruit trees into pyramidal, Christmas tree shapes, with the lower branches being the widest, and tapering to narrower branches as you go up. Lower branches will receive increased sunlight, promoting flowering and fruiting lower on the tree. Left unpruned, fruit trees develop round globe shapes having most fruit on the difficult-to-reach top perimeter.
  • Older fruit trees can be slowly molded to the pyramidal shape over a period of three to five years.
  • Older trees produce better if the interior is thinned by removing branches that crisscross or point inward.