No gardening activity seems to instill as much trepidation in a novice gardener as pruning. While an improperly administrated pruning job can make your plants appear rather odd looking, unless you did something really drastic, any mistakes will eventually get covered by new growth. This is not to say that the job of pruning should be taken lightly. Indeed, a few well-placed cuts can do much to enhance your plant’s appearance and health.

Not all plants require the same degree of pruning. Very young ornamental plants and shade trees usually just need a judicious cut here and there to promote structural soundness. Basically, you are just looking to remove dead, damaged or rubbing wood. Branches growing into another plant or your pathway may also need some trimming or removal.

Larger trees may need a storm damaged limb occasionally removed, or perhaps a few lower branches trimmed to increase light to plantings below. Unless you are skilled in tree limb removal, your best bet is to call in a professional. If you decide to remove a branch or two yourself, keep in mind this is a several step process. The final cut should leave the branch collar undisturbed to promote quicker healing. Look for wrinkled rings of bark around the base of the branch where it attaches to the tree trunk. This is the branch collar. Most books on pruning do a good job illustrating it as well as showing you in diagram format how to make a proper cut.

As you might imagine, different types of shrubs require somewhat different pruning techniques although the final goal is similar in most cases. One generally prunes to control a plant’s size, improve its shape, remove unhealthy branches, and to increase light and air penetration into the canopy.

Late winter through early spring is a good time to prune most shrubs. Since there are no leaves on deciduous plants, the branch framework is obvious making it clearer where to place your cuts. As a general rule of thumb, evergreens, fruit bearing plants and summer blooming deciduous shrubs like rose of Sharon are pruned in now. Spring blooming shrubs like lilacs, forsythia and mock oranges are usually pruned after they bloom. They can be pruned now but realize you will be cutting off flower buds as well.

Make cuts to evergreens below a shoot. Photo by dmp2021

Before beginning, take a step back and observe the plant’s natural growth tendencies. Plants usually look and perform better when allowed to take on their natural forms. Forsythias, for example, want to be flowing fountains, the rose of Sharon tends to resemble an upright, half-opened fan, and many spireas grow somewhat globular.

Forsythias would rather be fountain shaped than square. Photo by dmp2019.

Some shrubs like privets and yews do respond better to repetitive shearing than others which is why they are often chosen for formal hedges. When purchasing new plants for your yard, you should consider their mature size and shape. While pruning can keep them in check to some extent, it does have its limits. Buy a rhododendron species that matures at four feet if it is to grow under a window rather than continuously fight with one that has lofty goals of ten to twelve feet in mind!

It’s a good idea to place plants at a proper distance from buildings rather than prune their backsides straight. Photo by dmp 2021.

Speaking of rhododendrons, for the most part, these and other broadleaved evergreens do not require heavy pruning. Just shape them lightly and pinch the growing tips if you want them to branch out more. Generally, these are not pruned until after flowering but don’t hesitate bringing in a few branches to force in early April.

Rejuvenate overgrown shrubs that have multiple stems by cutting out about one-third of the older stems at ground level. Repeat this procedure for the next two years allowing several younger stems to take their place. This works well with older lilacs as well as shrubs grown for their colorful young stems such as the red or yellow twig dogwoods.

Remove old brown stems from red or other colored stemmed dogwoods to encourage new colorful growth. Photo by dmp2018.

For shrubs that just need to be shaped, prune out the dead wood, rubbing branches and weak stems first. Then just head back or remove some to the branch tips to shape. Always use sharp pruning tools, make an angled cut to an outside bud and remember, mistakes will regrow!

Dawn P.

So here we are in the cold, finally seeing some snow. It is hard to think about wanting to go outside and do any yard work. This time of year, however, is one of my favorite times! We are now experiencing ideal times for tree and shrub trimming for a number of reasons. The first is the most obvious – the leaves are off the trees. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage.  With the leaves off, we cannot tell which branches are alive or dead. To me, this is less of a concern as I am more focused on bigger issues of tree shape and proximity to my house and outbuildings. Dead limbs can be trimmed at any time of year. What is advantageous is bare limbs allow us to get a good view of the tree as a whole and find the exact point we want to cut. It allows us to see the tree as a whole and not just a branch sticking out to one side. This way we are less likely to cut the “wrong” branch and end up with an oddly shaped tree.

Overgrown trees next to a house can lead to many costly repairs and possibly increased insurance costs. Photo by mrl2021.

The cold weather provides many additional advantages. For one, the tree is in a dormant state.  The flow of sap is toward the roots, so cutting will not harm the tree’s health now. When cut in the summer in full leaf, the sap may flow out of the tree and rob it of energy/nutrients. This can also attract many of the tree’s pests. The cold weather also provides solid ground for us to stand on, or put a ladder on. This gives us much more safety and stability when we attempt to cut some branches. The third reason I like cold weather cutting is that I do not have a lot going on outside in the garden. During other times of the year, I am very active in the vegetable and flower gardens while also trying to keep up with lawn maintenance. What generally ends up happening is that the tree trimming does not get done. Here in the winter, however, I have more time. The only exceptions is that I would not recommend trimming in deep snow. The obstructed view may prove dangerous when you are trying to set up a ladder. Another word of caution is to watch out for ice!

Not trimming the trees by your house, shed, barn, or other outbuildings can lead to many disasters! Not only that, but your insurance company many also increase your rates should they come out to inspect the property (a more common practice nowadays). Tree branches that touch the side of your house can damage it in multiple ways. The simplest is rubbing the paint or finish off of your siding. In the case of brick or aluminum siding, rubbing branches may leave some permanent marks in them as well, negatively affecting the appearance of your house when the tree is finally cut or if it dies/falls. In extreme cases, I have seen holes rubbed into wood siding, which may invite birds to nest, or even worse – squirrels (more on them in a minute). Hanging tree branches that touch your roof can ruin your shingles. Branches blowing in the wind can rub on the shingles and wear them away over time, or the branches may actually pry off or break shingles when blowing in a big storm. Even if the branches do not touch the shingles directly, they may shade the roof and not allow it to dry sufficiently. This moist situation can invite moss to grow, which breaks down your shingles through mechanical and chemical action. All these situations can lead to premature failure of the roof, which is a very costly repair. Lastly, branches touching or coming into close contact with a building may invite squirrels. Although cute looking, they cause a lot of destruction and costly damage. If you patch up one of their holes, they will simply and quickly chew another one. The best way to avoid this war is to prevent their access to your structures by keeping the branches beyond jumping distance (six feet or more). 

These woody shrubs rubbing on the garage can remove paint and wear away the wooden siding over time. Photo by mrl2021.

So many people worry about the “proper” way to trim trees. Although you will find no shortage of advice on the subject, in general there is no perfect way to trim. The worst thing you can do is nothing, and then have your buildings ruined. Trees will grow back over time, and any mistakes will soon disappear. Different types of fruit trees may have different ideas or patterns of cutting (consult a good fact sheet, book, or internet search for your specific type), but most of our trees are for landscaping. There are Japanese maples, weeping willows, and certain ornamental trees that have a specific shape. Be careful trimming these to preserve their growth pattern. Conifers should generally be left alone unless trimming is absolutely necessary. What I will talk about here is generalized cutting tips for deciduous trees (these lose their leaves in the fall) and shrubs.  To start off, cut away any branches that are coming into contact with the building. Rather than cut back each branch, it may be better to go back to a common node (growth point) from which all the branches sprout. In general, cut in a way that looks pleasing to the overall shape of the tree. Decide how you want things to look before you start, rather than making it up as you go along. I like to start by cutting out any branches that are growing toward the center of the tree or shrub and rubbing together. These can injure the tree and allow pests and/or diseases to enter.  Also, a pattern of a trunk with branches at the top works the best. Balance out the number of branches on each side. Leaving the lower part of the tree with short stubby branches is not too visibly appealing. Lower limbs should be cut back all the way to the trunk. When trimming a branch, it is a good idea to make a shallow cut underneath, and then move to the top of the branch and slightly outward toward the tip to make the actual trim cut. If done properly, when you are cutting through the branch and it starts to break off, it snaps off nice and clean instead of ripping bark off the remaining branch. One last note of caution – make sure you are not underneath the branches you are trimming.This way when limbs fall, they will not hit into your ladder, or anything/anyone else!

When you cut tree or shrub branches, you want to cut a significant amount off. For example, if I have a mature tree touching my house and I cut 6 inches of a branch off, by mid-summer the tree will have sent multiple new branches toward my house. Trees can be a little like the mythical hydra. Cut off one branch and two grow back into its place. This has to do with the meristem tissues. Basically speaking, when you cut off the apical meristem (tip), the two lateral meristems at the previous node (growth points) will sprout. So, with all that in mind, when you cut a branch back on a mature tree, you should decide how many feet you want to cut off, not inches. There is only real exception to the late fall/early winter trimming. Do not trim azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythias, or other early spring flowering shrubs. They set their flower buds late in the year for the following spring. If trimmed at this time, you will essentially be cutting off flower buds. Too much trimming will leave a very lopsided bloom, or no blooms at all. These plants are best trimmed right after they get done flowering. Hopefully you can find the time!          

These Rhododendrons are best trimmed in the spring after flowering. The dormant flower buds can be seen at the tips of the branches. Photo by mrl2021.

There are more tools than a person would know what to do with for trimming trees. I will discuss some of my favorites here. While hand-held pruning shears are nice, they will not really be very effective. Most of the branch diameters that you will trim will be larger than they can cut through. The basic, most useful tool is the two handled loppers. The long handles give the leverage needed to more easily cut through larger diameter branches. These come in two styles: anvil and bypass. The anvil type has a blade that comes down and rests on the solid piece below (anvil). I do not like these as they have a tendency to crush the stems, and sometimes do not completely cut through the branch. The bypass type has the blade cut past the bottom non-moving blade. These seem to work very well and make for nice cuts. Make sure to keep the blade sharp! There are a number of sharpeners for sale to help with this. 

The hand held pruners (left) are not really big enough for tree and shrub work. The bypass loppers (right) make the work much easier. Photo by mrl2021.

A number of people like bow saws. These are great for cutting down Christmas trees as the construction allows the blade to flex a little while using it. Another advantage is the blades are easily replaced. It usually takes a bit of effort to use them, and I tend to prefer a pruning saw instead. The pruning saws have a lot of really sharp teeth in multiple directions that allows the cutting to happen rather quickly. I find these take a lot less effort to use, and they stay sharp for many years.

The bow saw (top) is best for cutting down Christmas trees. The pruning saw makes trim work quick and much easier than traditional saws. Photo by mrl2021.
A close up of the sharp, multidirectional teeth on a pruning saw. Photo by mrl2021.

For tall trees or high limbs, there are pole saws. This tool’s name is also its description. It consists of a saw on the end of a long pole. Usually you end up positioning the blade on the tree limb and then pull a rope to get the saw to cut. Better yet is an electric or gas powered pole saw.  This is essentially a mini chainsaw on the end of a long pole. These are much easier to use, but as would be expected cost more money. Many times you can buy an extra extension piece to allow for a longer reach. Be careful of falling limbs when using pole saws. The use of a hard hat is recommended. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use and safety concerns.

A gas powered pole saw. Photo by mrl2021.

The last few tools are much more expensive and increasingly more dangerous to use. Recently, the major hand-held power tool companies have come out with one handed Sawzall battery operated tools. There are special pruning blades that can be used in these that will make short work of your trimming duties. One of the newest tools is a mini battery powered chainsaw that you operate one handed. These would be used for smaller diameter pruning options. Last, but not least, is a good old-fashioned chainsaw. These may be gas or battery powered. They need to have oil to lubricate the chain. These cut through lumber like butter (unless your chain gets dull).  They are much easier to use, but very dangerous. If you choose this option, make sure to educate yourself on proper chainsaw safety. In some situations, this tool may be too large for the job.       

A gas powered chainsaw. This tool may be too big for many of our trimming projects. Photo by mrl2021.

Well hopefully this helps you get motivated to use this cold weather downtime to get some yardwork done! Many of these items would make for great holiday gifts for an avid gardener or landscape enthusiast. These items can be found at most big box stores, hardware stores, equipment dealers, and even some online retailers. There is nothing better than the proper equipment when you have job to do. Happy trimming! 

Matt Lisy

Bare spring stick just pushing out buds. Photo Carol Quish

Bare spring stick just pushing out buds. Photo Carol Quish

During the winter, my hydrangea looks dead. It has lost all of its leaves, as it should, but I am now left with a bunch of bare sticks. Normally when you see this, the urge is to cut them back to the ground. DON’T prune them now. Those dead looking sticks contain the buds for next year’s flowers. If you prune now, you will be cutting off all of the flower buds. Sometimes the deer will come along and eat the tips, producing the same effect as if you pruned them. Other years with very cold sustained winter temperatures below zero, the flower buds will be killed by being frozen. Big leaf hydrangea’s, Hydrangea macrophylla, is only borderline hardy in zone 6. During warmer winters big leaf Hydrangea fare much better. They also will not lose their flower buds closer to the shore and ocean areas as the climates are more moderated by the ocean temperatures which are warmer than the air.

So to recap:

Do not prune big leaf hydrangea in fall, winter or spring. Only prune after flowering as flower buds are produced in late summer and carried on the sticks until the following summer bloom time.

Deer may eat the flower buds held at the tips. Use spray deer repellents monthly or cover with burlap. Protect from snow buildup that could break the branches.

Site Hydrangea in a south-facing or protected area of the yard to reduce colder temperature exposure.

Hopefully, next summer your hydrangea plant will bloom beautifully.

Bigleaf Hydrangea

-Carol Quish

The early, bright gold blooms of forsythia are welcomed by many as cheerful harbingers of spring. Some find the ubiquitous waves of yellow a bit too jarring to integrate into formal landscapes and foundation plantings. Others use the flowers as a phenological indicator signaling that it is time to put down pre-emergence crabgrass controls. Dr. Michael Dirr from the University of Georgia finds it, “one of the most overrated and over-used shrubs!” Whatever your take on forsythia, we all know that the cheery, 4-lobed blossoms are a sure sign that spring is finally here!

While they are found throughout New England, forsythias belong to the olive family and are native to eastern Asia although one species is from south east Europe. They were named in honor of the Scottish botanist, William Forsyth (1737-1804).

I used to really like the forsythia that came with our old house. It was located next to the porch and for at least 15 years I enjoyed this golden herald of spring and spent vast hours clipping and chopping at it to keep it in the size range I needed for that spot. I also spent a fair amount of time pulling out rooting shoots that seemed to multiply each year. The look I was after was that of an upright, somewhat mounded shrub. Forsythia wants to be a fountain that spills over its banks. My husband was so happy that I wanted to replace the forsythia with a better behaved shrub that I found it cut down and dug out at merely the mention that I was thinking of doing so! It has since been replaced by a bayberry.

Now that I have confessed to my horticultural moment of darkness, I have to admit that when forsythia are well-placed in the landscape, they can provide a glorious vision for 2 or 3 weeks. The key is finding the correct placement and proper pruning.

Forsythia do not want to be a ball or a box or a rectangle. They want to be that flowing fountain and need at least a 10 foot by 10 foot spot to shine. When given enough room, they do delight us for several weeks each spring. Any less and they, like Dr. Dirr remarks, “always needs grooming”. I find that they are best suited to slightly sloping ground where they can sprawl. This may be a good placement for a single shrub or a long border depending on your site.

Forsythias require a lot of maintenance to keep this rectangular shape.

The actual pruning of forsythia can be done in several ways. Purists recommend removing up to one-third of mature stems to the ground every year and heading back any aggressive stems right after flowering. This stimulates a few new shoots and new growth from older wood which will produce a multitude of flower buds for the following year. Option two is to cut the shrub to the ground after flowering. This produces long, somewhat drooping shoots with a ton of blossoms the following spring. It keeps the plants within bounds but does require this yearly ritual.

Many forsythia owners adhere to the practice of ‘let it be’. This is all and well on a sloped bank where the plant takes on its own venue as a ground cover. But in a smaller space, the constant intrusion of this plant can create friction among neighboring plants and gardeners.

Well-pruned forsythia make for a great, colorful hedge.

What to do? Since forsythia is quite adaptable I would say go with what works for you. While I think that forsythia should be placed where they can develop fountains of sprigs, each clothed in gold come spring, if you are most comfortable with shearing forsythia into hedge formation, so be it. Forsythia is a very forgiving plant. Constant shearing will not produce the best flowers but this repetitive task is necessary for containment. Forsythia lovers – remove at least a few of the oldest stems each year to encourage vibrant, new growth. Try some named varieties with more predictable growth habits. And, if you do not want the long, arching stems to root, cut or pull them up. Like most items that achieve the gold standard – stately forsythias require some effort on your part!

Happy Gardening,


photo by Joey Williamson, Clemson Extension

The hydrangea in front of my house is just a bunch of bare sticks right now, screaming to be cut down. It looks like quite a leafless eyesore after losing  foliage last fall. During the winter the local chickadees use it as a perch beneath the hanging bird feeder . The avian flocks do not mind its ugliness. I don’t mind it either knowing the flower buds are on those naked sticks, waiting for the coming spring and summer to bloom.There are five different types of hydrangeas. Some bloom on old wood and some on new wood.

My hydrangea is a Hydrangea macrophylla or Bigleaf Hydrangea. The ones that bloom on old wood carry the next year’s flower buds on the barren sticks, through the fall, winter and next spring. If these are pruned during the fall, winter or spring, the flower buds will be removed. The plant will grow new stems and leaves from the base of the plants, but these stalks will NOT contain flower buds, therefore no flowers that year. The flower buds are produced and set after the plant flowers in June and July but before fall. Any pruning should be done as the flowers fade during the summer to avoid cutting off the buds. I remember to prune Hydrangea macrophylla when I cut flowers for a vase to bring inside. Sometimes our winters are just too cold for the tender over-wintering buds, killing the buds, resulting in no flowers the following summer even if pruned correctly.

Hydrangea macrophyllas are divided into two groups,  Hortesia and Lacecap. Hortensias have big ball flower forms. Lacecaps have a somewhat flat top shaped flower. These bloom on old wood, prune after flowering but before August 1st.

Hortensia Hydrangea, Photo: U.S. National Arboretum

Lacecap Hydrangea, Photo: Gary Wade

Hydrangea quercifolia, commonly called Oakleaf Hydrangea also blooms on old wood. Prune after flowering.  If terminal buds are killed during winter, no flowers will be produce. Should be protected in zone 5.

Oakleaf Hydrangea,

Two other common hydrangea bloom on new wood, wood produce from the plant during the same year. These are Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora, commonly called Panicle or PG Hydrangea and Hydrangea arborescens, commonly called Smooth Hydrangea. These can be pruned in late fall, winter or early spring. The flower buds will be produced on the new wood produced in spring.

Hydrangea paniculata, Panicle Hydrangea. Prune in early spring.

Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora, photo by Karen Russ, Clemson Extension

Hydrangea arborescens, Smooth Hydrangea blooms on new wood. Prune in winter or early spring.

Hydrangeas arborescens - Annabelle, - Photo: Beth Jarvis