The Dos and Don’ts of Pruning

— Written By

February is a great time to prune most plants. Although pruning is not necessary for every plant in the landscape, it often improves the health and performance of ornamental plants.

There are several other reasons to prune ornamental plants including improving a plant’s shape, controlling its size, and promoting flowering. Whatever the reason for pruning, there are some basic rules that should be followed.

DO use the right tools.

Having the right tools on hand makes pruning a lot easier. Most pruning can be done using a good pair of bypass pruners and a pair of lopping shears. Bypass pruners will take care of small diameter branches, while lopping shears are good for larger diameter branches and stems. Make sure blades are sharp before pruning.

 DO prune at the right time.

As a rule of thumb, prune spring flowering shrubs, like azaleas and forsythia, after they flower. Prune summer blooming shrubs, like abelia and hollies in late winter, before bud break.

Avoid pruning plants in the fall. Pruning will stimulate new, succulent growth which is easily killed by cool fall temperatures.

DO remove the “three Ds.”

One of the most important reasons to prune plants is to remove dead, diseased, or damaged wood, or the “three Ds.” This can be done at any time of the year.

There are exceptions to every rule, and in this case, it is apple and pear trees that have fire blight, a common bacterial disease in the Southeast. Trees that are infected should be pruned only during the winter months when the disease is not active.

DO sanitize pruners between cuts.

Sanitizing pruners in between cuts prevents the spread of certain diseases, like fire blight. If you’re pruning Bradford pear or edible apple and pear trees that have fire blight, wipe pruners with a sanitizing solution of bleach and water (9 parts to 1 part) or Lysol disinfectant after each cut. This will prevent the spread of the disease.

DON’T remove more than a third of the canopy.

Many people question how much they can prune off at a time. A general guideline is to not remove more than a third of the canopy of a tree or shrub at one time. Doing so may be too much stress for the plant to recover. If you’re unsure of how much of the plant to prune, repeatedly remove small amounts until the desired effect is achieved.

Certain plants, like crape myrtles, can usually withstand more drastic pruning but only if they’re healthy. The popular method of pruning crape myrtles (aka crape murder), where main branches are removed, results in fewer blossoms and delayed flowering.

DO know what you’re trying to achieve.

When pruning plants, I have found that it is best to begin with the end in mind. Know what you want the plant to look like before you begin cutting. I like to prune a little and then step back to see how the plant looks from a distance, so I don’t get carried away.

DON’T treat pruning cuts.

Even though pruning sealer is for sale, it is not recommended. It was once recommended to treat wounds created by pruning with a sealer, but studies have shown that it inhibits a plant’s natural healing process and foster decay of plant tissue. Given adequate time, a healthy tree will heal itself.

Pruning can be an unsettling experience, as you cut away growth. But with a little practice, you will gain confidence in knowing that they are improving the plant’s health, not hurting it.

For more information on this topic, download a copy of Pruning Trees and Shrubs at or call the Caldwell Extension Service at 828-757-1290 for a copy.