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How to Prune Trees & Shrubs

Proper pruning helps the longevity of trees and shrubs by removing unhealthy branches and warding off pests. With our guide on how to prune trees, you can ensure that you’re trimming bushes and pruning trees correctly, at the right time of year.

Skill Level: Beginner
  1. Step 1 When to Prune Your Trees and Shrubs

    Close-up of branch pruning

    Many common shade trees can be maintained at any time of the year, however, it is recommended to avoid any major pruning from January through early March.

    The consensus for the best time to prune trees is late fall to early winter, during which, trees tend to shed their leaves. This allows for the structure of the tree to be clearly visible for effective pruning.

    To find out the best pruning time for your specific species, consult a Home Depot Garden Centre associate.

  2. Step 2 Make Sure You Have the Right Tools for the Job

    Close-up of person’s hand holding shears

    Aside from knowing the right time of the year for pruning, it’s also important to have the right tools for the job.

    Pruning and trimming helps create a safe environment and improve plant health, but not if you’re shaping and cutting with the wrong equipment.

    Depending on the thickness of the branches, the type of branches, and whether they are clustered or v-shaped, you may need different types of shears and pruning tools.

    Pruning shears are appropriate for cuts up to ¾ inches in diameter, while lopping shears are perfect if you need leverage and longer handles for branches up to 1 ½ inches in diameter. Thicker branches up to 4 inches in diameter require a hand and pole saw. For larger branches, consider using a small chainsaw.

  3. Step 3 Assess the Need for a Professional Arborist

    Man in hard hat and reflective vest holding shearing and pruning tools

    When pruning trees, use your best judgment to assess whether to contact a professional arborist. Some situations require more advanced training and experience, for example, dealing with dangling branches or tricky-to-get-to spots like foliage near power lines.

  4. Step 4 Prevent Damage by Making the Cuts Properly

    Hand using pruning shears to cut a branch

    To cut branches properly, cut along the branch side of the stem collar – the area where the trunk and branch join, at a 45-degree angle. Doing this protects both the stem and encourages effective healing post-pruning.

    Over-pruning or pruning at the wrong time of year can either damage your tree, or in a worst-case scenario, kill them. After pruning trees, trees may produce their own protective barrier that acts as a wound dressing.

  5. Step 5 Tips for Pruning Trees

    Man using a lopper to cut a tree branch

    There are many tips and tricks that will help you prune trees effectively, including how you approach shoots, the trunk, and the upper and lower limbs.

    On young trees, the main trunk should be protected from any deteriorating branches. Cut any branches that interfere with the main trunk, those that cross or rub against each other, and any that are diseased or damaged.

    The base of the tree should be free from any side shoots, and these should be removed with scissors or a knife. Meanwhile, lower limbs should be pruned to expose the trunk, and pruning the upper limbs should serve to enhance the tree’s natural shape.

    Even though you should wait until the right season to do a full pruning, you should always prune away dead branches throughout the year.

  6. Step 6 Pruning Thick Tree Branches

    Person using a pruning saw to cut off a branch

    Cutting off larger branches often follows a three-step or three-cut method. This ensures that you don’t damage the bark and that a callus forms where the branch was, which is essential to good tree health.

    Start by making a shallow, wedge-shaped cut on the underside of the branch, about 4-5 inches from the branch collar. Then, cut off the branch 2-3 inches from the cut to leave a stub. Lastly, cut to remove the stub as close to the tree’s trunk as possible.

  7. Step 7 Tips for Trimming Bushes

    Man using hedge trimmer on bushes

    Once you’ve gotten familiar with how to prune trees, you can use the following tips when moving on to taking care of your bushes and shrubs.

    Some light trimming can be done throughout the year with hand pruners or loppers. However, you’ll want to trim early spring-flowering shrubs after they bloom, non-flowering ones after their new growth is completely formed, and summer-flowering shrubs in the winter or early spring.

    Other tips include:

    • To allow your shrub to get air and sun, prune inward-growing branches
    • Save any heavy pruning for every 3-5 years
    • Only cut shrubs to a third of its size each year
    • If you find that you are pruning too frequently, you may need to transplant your shrub
    • Avoid making the top wider than the base, as this will prevent sunlight from reaching the entire plant
  8. Step 8 Trimming Bushes into Shapes

    Man trimming bush into a topiary

    Bushes and smaller trees can be clipped into shapes and are commonly known as topiaries. Depending on your preference and plant species, you can go with single, double, or triple balls, spirals, cones, and other more complicated shapes.

    Boxwoods are the ideal choice for starting a topiary because of their abundance of small green leaves and coverage. Simply grab a pair of sharp shears, slowly prune away at your plant, and start making fun creations for your garden.

    To help guide the process, you can use a topiary frame. These come in the form of pyramid frames, or a combination of wires and ties to create other shapes. Remember to stop trimming your shrubs two months before the first frost to help protect them over the winter season.

  9. Step 9 Tips for Pruning Flowering Shrubs

    Person trimming flowering shrubs with a hand pruner

    Just like when pruning trees and non-flowering shrubs, you’ll want to cut any dead and damaged wood with a hand pruner or a lopper. This also applies to fading flowers. Ensure you trim and shape branches and prune ones that grow inwards to make sure the shrub gets an even amount of sun and air.

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