How and When to Prune Shrubs

Pruning shrubs is often straightforward but there are important details you should be aware of before getting started.

Shrubs and bushes are shorter and tend to be hardier than trees and so it is usually easier to prune them without damaging the plant or putting yourself in danger.

The most important decision you will have to make is when exactly to prune shrubs. This is a common question asked by home gardeners because the answer depends upon the species of bush you are intending to prune.

Here are some simple rules of thumb to follow for deciduous (leaf shedding) and evergreen shrubs and bushes.

When to prune your shrubs and bushes

It is best to consult a species-specific guide for precise instructions about when and how to prune your shrubs. However, the quickest way to decide when to prune your shrubs is to note when they flower.

There are two basic flowering patterns:

  • Early blooming shrubs that flower in the spring (e.g. andromeda, daphne, forsythia, Japanese rose, lilac, rhododendron, weigela, winter heath and witch hazel)
  • Late blooming shrubs that flower in the summer (e.g. buddleia, cinquefoil, hydrangea, potentilla, rose of Sharon, shrub rose, snowberry, spirea, and summersweet)

Shrubs that flower in the spring are blooming on the previous year’s wood growth. You should ideally wait for them to finish flowering before you prune.

Shrubs that flower in the summer are blooming on the current year’s growth. You should prune these shrubs before bud break either in late winter or early spring.

For non-flowering shrubs, it is usually best to prune once the new year’s growth has finished forming.

In most cases, you should avoid pruning in the late summer or autumn. This will stimulate new growth and risks frost damage when the weather turns cold.

The best time to prune your shrubs might also vary depending on the purpose of your pruning. For example, even though it is normally better to prune early blooming shrubs after flowering, to maximise the number of blooms, pruning beforehand can help to rejuvenate a plant (at the expense of fewer flowers that year).

If shaping an unruly bush, it can be easier to wait until just after new growth has finished.

How to prune your shrubs and bushes

The best pruning method to use will depend on the purpose of your pruning. Are you controlling the shape and size of your bush and shrub (termed ‘heading back’) or are you looking to produce more flowers or berries?

Are you trimming and carefully shaping an ornamental bush (‘shearing’) or taking drastic action to bring a tired, old shrub back to life?

Either way, removing dead, dying and diseased wood should be the priority and this can be done at any time. Suckers and watersprouts, those thin shoots that emerge from nowhere, can also be cut off without care providing they are not too thick.

If your goal is heading back, aim for a balanced shape by cutting back branches that are too long or growing in the wrong direction. Always cut back to a bud or lateral branch that is pointing in the direction of desired growth.

Using sharp tools, cut at a 45 degree angle away from the bud. Leave less than a quarter of an inch protruding to minimise the chance of disease.

If your aim is to encourage more flowers and fruit, thin out your shrubs over time, removing around a third of the branches each year. Try to keep the base of the shrub wider than the top so that light manages to reach the lower branches.

Certain plants (e.g. forsythia, honeysuckle, privet and weigela) can cope with very severe pruning. If you need to rejuvenate these shrubs, you can cut them right back down to ground level. You may not get flowers for a couple of years but you can often give the shrub a new lease of life.

Finally, if you are shearing a bush for decorative purposes, avoid strimming the top. This will encourage growth where the cut has been made. Pruning branches further back will lead to more balanced foliage.

While the guidelines above can help you to keep on top of your shrubs and bushes, there is no substitute for professional, species-specific attention. Kneebone Trees provide a pruning service which follows the European Tree Pruning Guide. Contact us today for a quote.

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