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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Pruning trees and shrubs: A plant-by-plant guide

Hand-held pruners work well for cutting thin branches.

Hand-held pruners work well for cutting thin branches. Credit: Justine Damiano

It’s pruning season — time to scale back or control overgrown or incorrectly growing branches from still-dormant trees and shrubs.

Hand-held pruners will do the job when pruning thin branches. Use them to remove dead wood, crisscrossed limbs and branches that are growing into a tree’s canopy. But when removing a branch with a diameter of more than one inch, never make a flush cut, which would remove the branch collar and create a bigger wound. Instead, use a saw and the three-cut method.

Here are some tips and recommendations for pruning common landscapes plants.

Broadleaf evergreen shrubs (laurels, rhododendrons, etc.)

Broadleaf evergreens should undergo only selective pruning of dead, broken or crowded branches. Although they can handle it at any time of year without undue stress, care should be taken not to remove buds from flowering shurbs.

In addition, deadhead rhododendrons and mountain laurels only if they aren’t full enough, and do so immediately after flowering. Waiting even a week will defeat the purpose, and plants will remain leggy.

Narrow-leaf (needled) evergreens

Needled evergreens should undergo selective maintenance pruning only. Always remove more from the top than from the bottom, which will allow sunlight to reach the base of the plant. Take care not to overshear or cut holes into narrow-leaf evergreens; with the exception of yews, they won’t ever fill back in.


Prune anytime but remember, the plant’s bottom must remain wider than the top. If the plant tapers to the bottom, the only way to correct it is to cut the entire hedge down to 6 to 8 inches from the ground and wait for it to grow back.

Lilacs and other spring bloomers

It’s best to wait until after flowers fall so as not to remove flower buds and spoil the season’s show.

Forsythia should be pruned every year right after flowering.

Spirea and weigela should be pruned every two to three years.

Clethra and cotoneasters should seldom be pruned.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) should never be pruned in fall. Instead, cut it down to 6 to 12 inches from the ground every year in early spring.

The three-cut pruning method for branches with a diameter of 1 inch or more.

1 Cut the branch halfway through from underneath, a few inches from the trunk.

2 Move your saw a few inches farther out on the branch, away from the trunk, and cut the whole branch off from the top. This eliminates the weight of the branch and prevents tearing.

3 Make the third and final cut just outside the branch-bark ridge, sawing through the entire branch to the outside of the collar. If you were to make this complete cut without having done steps 1 and 2, the weight of the branch would cause it to rip just before separating, and the tree would have a difficult recovery and a larger area through which disease could enter.

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