Fall Pruning and Trimming

Fall Pruning

I was “garden coaching” with a couple that are client/friends the other day. The area they wanted help with was fall pruning of trees and shrubs. This was a lovely experience with a terrific couple able to express differences and commonality while having fun together, a real lesson for those of us with overly sensitive egos! He likes to prune heavily while she is more cautious, which may be a Y chromosome issue as I tend to be heavy handed myself. Fortunately, pruning, shearing, and trimming require both qualities.

Distinguishing between what needs what is the first step. Generally, little leaf shrubs like  privet, taxus, and perhaps even forsythia  and burning bush can take a good shearing with a hedge clipper of some sort. Hemlocks would be the exception to that rule (there always seems to be one) requiring careful hand pruning. Larger leaf, slower growing plants like rhododendron, lilac, and hydrangea for example really prefer hand pruning as do almost all ornamental trees.


When shearing in the fall, a good rule of thumb is to remove no more than a quarter of the plant. Maybe a third if the plant has not been cut at all in some time. Remember that cutting a plant stimulates growth, which is OK in the Fall but you don’t want to over-stimulate, as the season is winding down and all plants are storing energy for their winter hibernation. If you want to really go at it, and completely reshape the fast growers, winter or very early spring shearing is advised, preferably before they leaf out much. The early you perform a hard cut, the more new foliage you will get to fill in the inevitable bald spots that will result from a hard cut.


When fall pruning, you are dealing with slower growers and want to be conservative. Feel free to remove deadwood of course, also “suckers” or “water sprouts”. These are little shoots coming out of the main branches inside the tree or shrub. Usually not much light reaches them and they almost use as much energy as they generate sapping the plant of energy it could be expending elsewhere. On trees, look for crossing branches. Crossing branches are branches that are touching and rub against each other when the wind blows, rubbing the bark off of the branch and making it more vulnerable to insects and disease. Remove the smaller branch whenever possible unless you feel the smaller branch is ornamentally more appropriate to the shape of the tree.

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