Is It Better To Prune Trees and Shrubs in Fall or Spring?


picture of a man pruning a tree

The debate on the ideal time to prune -fall or spring – has many an expert and amateur gardener cross shears. This article will address this burning question so that you know when to get out the ladder and shears and trim back that overhanging branches, call an expert or sit tight and enjoy your garden.

Trees and shrubs need to be pruned regularly to maintain optimum health, growth, and beauty. Fall pruning is encouraged for early blooming flowering trees. Evergreens rarely need pruning, while late blooming flowering trees and summer flowering shrubs need spring pruning.

Read on to get all the information you need to know why it is essential that you prune your trees and shrubs regularly, when is the best time to prune, and how to go about it without causing harm to your trees and shrubs so that you may enjoy them for many more years to come.

When To Prune Trees?

There are numerous opinions on when to prune. One view holds not to prune in the fall unless the branches are dead or pose a threat. The reason is that most of the energy is directed to the roots in the colder months.

Pruning makes cuts to a tree or shrub that takes time to heal, leading to the tree or shrub struggling to cope when it should be dormant.

Fruit and ornamental trees are accessible, require simple tools, and can be easy to prune. Bare trees allow you to identify branches and limbs that need attention.

Late Blooming Flowering Trees To be Pruned In Spring

Another view holds that pruning is meant for spring as it encourages growth. Yet another holds that the choice is entirely yours to make.

These trees have buds growing on the new growth, and to get a full bloom should be pruned in early spring when they are still dormant. This is for deciduous and coniferous woody plants.

American smoke tree, catalpa, dogwood, hawthorn, and Japanese lilac need spring pruning. Evergreens have a longer pruning period and Juniperus spp. – junipers and Thuja spp. – arborvitae have up to mid-August to be cut back. Pines, poplars, and spruces can be pruned after the hardening of the new growth.

Shrub renewal should be undertaken in early spring, such as beauty berries and hydrangeas.

Early Blooming Flowering Trees To be Pruned In Fall

Pruning should be when blooming is over as buds grow on the previous year’s growth include. This includes apricot, chokecherry, flowering plum, magnolia, and ornamental and shrubs such as Forsythia spp and Spiraea spp. – spirea,and Viburnum spp. – viburnum

Fall pruning, however, makes trees and shrubs susceptible to disease and can cause new buds to sprout if the fall temperature is warm, resulting in the buds dying or being damaged when the temperatures start to drop.

Trees and shrubs are lighter, easier to access and handle in the fall, and diseases and insects can be managed and controlled. Spring pruning is discouraged as it could lead to disease-carrying insects being attracted to the newly cut plant.

Large, well-established shady trees may require pruning by qualified arborists and care professionals who have the necessary training, tools, and removal equipment.

Prune in dry weather as wet conditions could accelerate bacterial growth. Cut as close to the body of the tree when removing dead or diseased branches or foliage. The angle should be the same as the branch collar.

Be that as it may, fall and spring are ideal for removing excess branches and foliage from trees and shrubs. Pruning of dead, diseased, and broken branches can occur as soon as the tree is planted, with continuous and regular pruning occurring thereafter to create sturdy and attractive trees.

Why is Pruning Essential?

Although trees and shrubs are fully capable of growing without being pruned in nature, this seasonal landscape maintenance task is essential for the health, growth, bounty, and beauty of the tree or shrub.

For Healthy Growth

Pruning cuts dead, dying, diseased or superfluous branches or foliage that would otherwise hinder healthy growth. It ensures that the tree or shrub has a strong trunk or stump to nourish the rest of the plant adequately and anchor it to be resilient to adverse weather conditions.

For Sunlight to Penetrate

Pruning also ensures that sunlight can penetrate to the roots or a larger area. By removing dead or diseased branches, the nutrients are not wasted on underperforming parts of a plant.

Pruning for insects or diseases control such as fireblight on species of the rose family (Amelanchier spp. – Juneberry, Cotoneaster spp. – cotoneaster, Malus spp. – apple Pyrus spp. – pear, Sorbus spp. – mountain-ash, etc.) and black knot of Prunus spp. (chokecherry especially)spp has to be undertaken with due care to avoid spreading insects or diseases to the healthy parts.

For Shaping Trees and Shrubs

Pruning also gives you the ability to shape trees and shrubs into a structured -appearance that brings out the features of the plant and enhances the beauty of your landscape. Pruning may also occur out of necessity to clear overhanging or weak branches that pose a safety risk to lives and property.

It is necessary to trim back overhanging foliage from electrical lines, walls, and roofs, which obstruct water flow or views or cause severe damage during adverse weather conditions.

Pruning Tools

Picture of pruning tools in grass

For a hassle-free and quick session, pruning tools should be as sharp and dirt-free as possible. Having cut an insect-infested or diseased branch or a part of a shrub, clean the tools by disinfecting in a teaspoon of bleach in hot water or cleaned in hot soapy water and thereafter dried thoroughly before moving on to another branch or tree.

  • Gardening gloves
  • Protective clothing
  • Hand pruners preferably with ergonomic handles to cut stems and branches less than ¾” thick.
  • Lopper for cutting middle branches less than 2″ wide and which gives extended reach and power.
  • Tooth Saw for the quick and easy cutting of large branches and limbs.
  • Extendable Pole saw and pruner for reaching branches less than 16 feet away and1 !/4 inch thick.
  • Shears

If you want to know what shears the best for pruning. I wrote an article showing 9 best shears for pruning. You can read it here.

Methods For Pruning Trees

Crown Thinning

Most often done on older trees, thinning involves reducing the density of the tree for increased light and airflow by reducing limbs and foliage. Used to minimize the effects of gravity, wind, ice, and snow. Thinning should be all-around, with only 10-20% of removal from the canopy. Limbs from 1 -4″ for large trees and 1/4-½” thick for ornamental and fruit trees must be removed.

Crown Raising

Performed in stages by removing lower lying branches so clear traffic, building, or scenic obstructions. The live crown should constitute 60% for deciduous trees and the trunk 40% of the tree. Conifers with a 50-50 trunk -to crown ratio will be strong and healthy.

Crown Reduction

It is a spring pruning method done on old, mature trees. Removes a tree branch back to a growing lateral branch which then becomes part of the new crown. It encourages new growth and strengthens the tree by removing old growth.

Crown Cleaning

It is an all-year activity of removing dead, diseased, or broken branches with the intended purpose of preventing future damage by strengthening the tree. Renewal pruning is performed during a 3-4 year period to increase flower display. For full and lush growth, cut shrubs to a 4s” stump, especially for summer flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus spp. – mockorange and Potentilla spp. – Potentilla.

Renewal pruning

It is performed during a 3-4 year period to increase flower display. For full and lush growth, cut shrubs to a 4s” stump, especially for summer flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus spp. – mockorange and Potentilla spp. – Potentilla.

When branches and limbs are small, thin, and young and pruning is too thin, reduced, or shape, a small hand tool should be used. Cut at a 45-degree angle,¼ inch above the outside facing bud. This will prevent water damage and disease and will encourage new growth.

Pruning a thick branch or trunk on average requires three cuts. The first two cuts remove unnecessary weight, and the third cut is to get optimum callus growth where removal occurs to maintain the tree’s health.

The first cut should be about 18 inches on the underside and halfway through the branch to be removed. The second cut should be an inch on the upper side from the first cut. Cut carefully until the branch breaks.

The cut should be 10 to 12 inches from the affected part for diseased branches or shrubs, preferably in the fall. To prevent further spread, the shears should be soaked in alcohol or sanitized in a 10-20% bleach solution.

Types of Pruning

There are two types of cuts when pruning namely heading and thinning.

Heading

The heading is the cutting or removing of shoots, buds, or smaller lateral branches to a stub which causes the plant to sprout a vigorous new growth. Hedge shearing, deadheading flowering plants, and tip pinching are methods of heading.

Thinning

Thining is the moving of a branch to its original position or a lateral branch 1/3 of the diameter of the removed limb, thereby giving the pruned plant a natural appearance. Scar tissue will form at the branch collar when a twig or branch is cut to the lateral branch.

Conclusion on is it better to prune trees and shrubs in fall or spring

The need to prune trees and shrubs is a required task that may be dreaded and is frowned upon. Needless to say, it has to be performed either by yourself or a professional to continue enjoying the beautiful and serene backdrop that is your own garden.

If you overpruned your tree. I worte an article showing step by step guide to fix an overpruned tree. You can read it here.

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Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter, and professional gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 46. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process so you are more productive

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