Gardening 101

To Prune or Not To Prune?

It is now officially winter, deciduous plants have lost their leaves, evergreens are resting, and summer perennials have died back down to the ground. This is a good time of year to prune some plants. So how do you know what and when to prune?

Here are some general rules to follow:

1.    Dead, diseased, or damaged wood may be pruned out of plants anytime of year. It is important to remove and destroy these potentially harmful plant parts from a healthy plant to prevent them from harboring diseases and insects.

2.    Pruning is an invigorating process that stimulates plants to put out new growth. If you stimulate growth at the wrong time of year (for example: fall), a plant will be encouraged to develop water sprouts. Water sprouts are branches composed of weak wood and water. A plant expends energy to grow these branches that typically break in a windstorm and have minimal flowering and fruiting capabilities. Simply by waiting to prune in the late winter or early spring, a gardener can reduce the number of water sprouts on a tree or shrub.

3.    Always prune a spring flowering shrub after it blooms. Pruning in winter would eliminate the flowers in spring.

4.    Remove suckers at the base of the tree.

5.    Remove crossing branches from the center of small trees and shrubs back to a main branch or trunk.

6.    When pruning limbs and branches, always prune back to about a one-quarter inch above a bud using a slanting cut. The bud is where new growth occurs. A slanted cut will help keep the pruned area dry after a rain.

7.    Ornamental grasses should be cut back to a few inches above the ground before they put out new growth in the spring.

8.    Never prune back more that one-third of a shrub. Too much pruning will shock a plant and could cause death.

9.    Less is more; prune only if you need to. Choose plants that reach the desired height and shape with minimal pruning and shaping.

10.    Use an anti-bacterial spray on your pruners in between pruning plants to prevent bacterial diseases such as fire blight from spreading.

11.    While evergreen non-flowering shrubs can be pruned at any time, if they are pruned in the spring they will have a chance to put out new growth and get fuller before the winter.

12.    Large trees should be pruned by a certified arborist.  A trained arborist will take care to prune your trees only if needed and in the correct manner. They also have all of the necessary equipment and experience to prevent damage to your personal property.

Michelle Wallace is the Consumer Horticulture Agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Durham Co. For more information on pruning or to request a copy of Training and Pruning Fruit Trees (AG69), contact the Durham Extension Master Gardener Volunteer office at 919-560-0528 or email

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