Pruning 101: Basics of Pruning Small Trees & Shrubs

Pruning 101: Basics of Pruning Small Trees & Shrubs

If you missed gardening expert, Melinda Myers pruning seminar at our Lake Bluff store last Saturday, don't worry! Here are some of Melinda's pruning tips to help you with keeping your shrubs beautiful and healthy.

Why Prune

  • Control size
  • Establish a strong framework
  • Improve form – growth habit
  • Remove hazards, diseased, insect infested, damaged, crossing, or rubbing branches
  • Increase Flowering & Fruiting
  • Improve Bark Coloration


When to Prune

  • When the saw is sharp – small & urgent jobs – though here are some factors to consider
  • Late winter or early spring are great times to prune most plants
    • Easy to see the structure of the plant and make fewer more precise cuts
    • Wounds close rapidly as growth will soon begin
    • Few insect and disease to contend with at this time of the year
  • Avoid
    • leaf expansion when bark is more subject to damage
    • late summer or fall that can stimulate late season growth
  • Spring flowering shrubs like lilac and forsythia
    • Right after flowering for blooms next year
  • Summer flowering shrubs
    • Late winter/early spring once worst weather has passed & before growth begins
      • increase hardiness by leaving plants stand
      • enjoy winter interest while providing habitat for birds and butterflies
      • you’ll only need to prune once if there is winter or animal damage
  • Oaks and Honeylocust – when dormant to avoid increase risk of disease
  • Evergreens
    • Avoid late summer or fall pruning
      • expose protected growth that will be more subject to winter injury
    • Pines – remove ½ to 2/3 of candle growth
    • Spruce – in spring above a healthy bud
    • Junipers – feather pruning in spring & lightly in mid summer
    • Yews – spring & lightly in mid-summer
    • Arborvitae – spring – topping leads to multiple leaders and more winter damage


Where to Make Cuts

  • ¼”  above an outward facing bud – slanting down and away from bud
  • Where branch joins another branch
  • Back to the main trunk
  • Ground level for suckering shrubs
  • Flush with the Branch bark collar


Types of Cuts

  • Heading Cut – shortens individual branches
  • Thinning Cut – removes branches



  • Safety Glasses
  • Leather Gloves
    • Elbow high gauntlet gloves protect forearms from thorns and prickles
  • Bypass hand pruners (usually cut branches up to ¾”)
  • Bypass loppers – extend reach, larger branches (most cut branches up to 2”)
    • Racheting loppers- greater cutting power with less effort
  • Saws – teeth point backward – cuts on back stroke – where you have greater power


Maintenance - Proactive pruning to keep shrubs healthy and looking good

  • Start with dead and diseased stems
  • Remove any crossing, rubbing or inward facing stems.
  • Reduce size by cutting one or two older stems to ground level.
  • Prune a few longer branches back to shorter adjoining branches


Renewal – For overgrown shrubs

  • Suckering shrubs like red twig dogwood
  • Remove one fourth of the older stems to ground level
  • Shorten the remaining stems as needed
  • Repeat over a 3 to 4 year period
  • Once renewed – switch to maintenance pruning


Rejuvenation – Severely overgrown & tolerant of this type of pruning

  • Tolerant shrubs such as
    • forsythia, snowball hydrangea, Rose of Sharon, spirea, and lilac
  • Remove all growth to ground level
    • Stimulates lots of new stems that will need thinning
    • Can result in an even taller plant than before pruning
  • Remove as much as ¾ of the new growth to ground level
  • Reduce height as needed
  • Switch to maintenance pruning once plants are the desired size and shape


Alternative for Summer blooming spirea, Annabelle hydrangeas and Potentilla

  • This method reduces problems with floppy growth
    • Prune back all stems halfway
    • Prune 50% of the larger/older stems to ground level
    • Lightly shear spirea after flowering
      • encourages 2nd even 3rd flush of bloom


More on Hydrangea Pruning

  • Panicle Hydrangea
    • Minimal pruning needed--Prune late winter/early spring, if needed.
    • Thinning plants to 5 - 10 primary shoots will encourage larger flowers.
    • Pruning to ground level will result in weak floppy growth.
  • Big Leaf Hydrangea (Endless Summer)
     Improve flowering on Endless Summer and Twist & Shout
     Moist, not wet soil spring through summer
     One application of Milorganite fertilizer in spring

         Oakleaf Hydrangea

  • Minimal pruning needed
  • Blooms on old wood
  • Remove deadwood. Prune after flowering if need/want to control the size.


Written by gardening expert, Melinda Myers. Melinda Myers is a nationally recognized gardening expert with more than 30 years of horticulture experience. She is a wealth of knowledge and we are pleased to share Melinda’s gardening tips with you!