Pruning Basics

By Mike Lorenc, Conservation Garden Park

Everyone who has trees and shrubs in their yard knows that pruning is important, but the act of pruning is just mysterious enough to be frightening. It doesn’t have to be. Making that first cut is, by far, the hardest mental hurdle to get over. We are here to help you with that.


Some say the best time to prune is when the clippers are in your hand. This generally means that it’s better to prune at less-than-optimal times than to not prune at all, but there are better times to prune than others. Late winter or spring — shortly before the leaves break out of their buds — is the best time for most woody plants. Outside of that, anytime is okay, except fall. Fall is, by far, the worst time to prune because pruning encourages growth, which is a bad thing just before a plant goes dormant for the winter. The plant might not have time to harden off the soft new growth, which invites various diseases.

If you have spring flowering shrubs like forsythia, lilac, viburnum, etc., the best time to prune is a few weeks after blooming. Pruning these shrubs early would cut off a big chunk of their flowers.


There are many reasons to prune a shrub or tree: removing dead or dying branches, thinning out branches to let sunlight or air movement into the center of the plant, making a tree easier to walk under, or removing a branch that is growing into a house or other structure. Proper pruning makes a shrub or tree healthier and more attractive.


This is where things can be scary — removing a limb from your favorite plant can be intimidating. There is a right way and a wrong way to remove a branch, and examples of the wrong way can be found everywhere.

The right way: Remove the limb right after the branch collar — the area where the branch you are removing meets either a larger branch, or trunk, with a swollen or wrinkled ring around the base. The goal is to remove the branch without cutting into the branch collar or the trunk. Do this one thing and you won’t have to worry about permanently hurting your tree.

The wrong way: Remove a branch where it doesn’t meet another branch or the trunk. This leaves a long stub which is almost impossible for a tree to heal over. This is called “topping” and should be avoided. Unfortunately, this practice is very common, even by professionals.

Once you have the when, why and how down, it comes down to practice. Choose a shrub you have considered removing and practice your cuts. If you still feel uncomfortable, consider hiring a

hiring a professional. Look for and arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. The ISA certification is how you know that a tree professional has the extensive training to do the job right.