pruning, pared way down

peegee-pruningONE OF GARDENING’S FEAR FACTORS (except to those who’ve totally mastered it, which doesn’t include me) is pruning, the way to get our woody plants into shape and keep them that way. I want to offer a version of pruning that’s so pared down that anybody can do it (even if you don’t yet have the kind of artistic vision that turns boxwood into crowing roosters, or reshapes a badly storm-damaged tree so well that nobody notices it was ever hit). All you have to do to be at least a B-plus pruner are these simple steps:

Take out the three D’s anytime they occur. The D’s are dead, damaged and diseased wood—and why wouldn’t you want to do this? (Some people say there are five D’s: dying and deformed being added to the list, but I’m trying not to get us overwhelmed.)

Take out all suckers and “water sprouts” as often as required. This means that mess at the base of a grafted shrub or tree that looks like a thicket of shoots surrounding the trunk. It also means those things that shoot straight up vertically off a branch at a 90-degree angle or thereabouts from the branch, very common on fruit trees, say, or old magnolias. Look at the architecture of these shoots: If you left them on, what would they turn into? (They’d turn into the disaster in the photo below.) Nothing very useful, or well-engineered. Don’t wait until you have a mess like this. Gone!
bad engineering

Similarly, if anything’s thinner than a pencil or turning inward in a way that looks like trouble, off with its head. Rubbing against another branch is no good, either. (Those are probably all in the D called deformed.)

We’ll get to the advanced intermediate stuff and maybe even some advanced stuff in time, but for now, can we all agree to be vigilant about those few simple steps? Our shrubs and trees will look all the more beautiful if we do.

Required equipment: A serious pair of shears, probably Felco’s; a folding hand saw (again, don’t get el cheapo, but Corona or Felco or ARS), and a long-arm pruner (I swear by my ARS 4-footer, and now there’s a telescoping 6-to-10-footer, too). A pair of serious loppers also recommended.

My entire Pruning FAQ page has even more advice to get you going.

  1. Terri Clark says:

    Such great and timely advice, Margaret! I am looking at the Sambucus nigra that is settled in front of taller trees and shrubs in my border that has sent out rockets of limbs obscuring all behind it. I like to keep it mid-height and spreading and the only way is to stool it now- not tomorrow. So despite the drizzle I’m off to the border with sword in hand!

  2. annie says:

    thank you, thank you. This was the topic at our house & garden this weekend…you’ve given me the confidence to go out and start lopping!

    p.s. I got your book recently and am enjoying everything about it–the prose, the photos, the information. Well done!

  3. teaorwine says:

    Last night after the golf was over, I rustled my husband out the door along with the long arm pruner to take out the dead wood from my sweetbay magnolia. Making way for new growth, the tree is looking great!

  4. margaret says:

    Glad you got the book…though it is so odd for me to see the garden as it was 12 years ago in those pages compared to now. New photos on the link under “Who’s gardening here” on the homepage (about 4 or 5 years ago) and of course here as I shoot them! It has grown and changed so much, matured.
    So happy that you, too, are out pruning (along with me and Tea or Wine and Terri). A small but determined army of pruners, out fighting chaos in the underbrush. Good for all of us.

  5. Maria Nation says:

    I love this site, Margaret! Brilliant! I’ve been a huge fan of yours since buying your book and visiting your garden a few times. Now I’ve been telling everyone about this site. Welcome, and thank you!

    Your pruning tips are greatly appreciated. The more I trend towards shrubs and trees in my gardens the more I need to overcome my prunophobia. Last spring I coppiced my Yellow Twig Dogwood (Cornus Sericea) – right down to the ground. Then nearly fainted when it appeared that I killed them all. But I didn’t and its beauty this last winter with the bright, new-yellow stems in the snow has given me a lot of confidence in the pruning department. My big hang up had been not knowing where on the shrub to make the cut. Learning that the best cut is often at the base of the shrub was a HUGE boost in my understanding of things. Removing a third of the old grown in multi-stem shrubs produces wonderful new, lush growth and is easy to grasp – although am not sure which “D” this technique falls under.

    Thanks again and I look forward to all your tips and inspiration and virtual hand-holding.

    best wishes,


  6. margaret says:

    Dear Maria,
    Welcome–to the blog this time, not the garden itself.
    I think you are onto the intermediate pruning lesson, which it sounds like you are qualified to teach us! ;-)
    You are correct, cutting out like a third of the oldest stems in overgrown multi-stem shrubs each year over several years can “rejuvenate” the plant and make room for fresh new stems to thrive.
    Now I know what pruning topic I have to address next…
    PS–the twig dogwood and twig willows, grown for their winter interest, are one of my favorite groups of plants. A very smart choice for making a 365-day landscape.

  7. Linda P says:

    Hi Margaret and Maria, I similarly am getting more into shrubs and trees but have lacked confidence to cut enough. This season I desided to cut down agressivley a spice bush or two that looked lanky and horried so much so I was ready to remove. I decided to give it a major cut down to only a foot from the ground. ( was about four to five feet but terrible looking) We will either see rejuviation or removal. I’m happy that Maria reported that technique worked for her. I also did that to a leggy Ilex that either needed to be fleshed out or removed. I don’t use them anymore as they are not hardy enough for my 5B. They were put in early on and I am trying to salvage them as they were large specimens. I really cut them down but we’ll see.
    I think also hydrangia can be a problem and I did cut today some old dead wood, some lack luster living wood to reshape growth and then some crossed branches. The buds don’t look like there is much action until later on those so one has to be careful and then we could have a cold snap into May and loose more.
    My next fear to get over is the cutting back of the huge wysteria on my porch. Although I have seen it done, read the encyclopedia of pruning and watched it once on Martha, I am still unsure about the way and time to prune. I know it’s important to get it right so that the fullness of flowering is there. The flowering on mine is sporatic and not what it should be. I don’t remember the time to cut them without re introducing it to myself each year that is part of it. One has to keep a time clock up in the brain.
    thank you again for the great info.
    Linda ps I did cut one type of magnolia right after flowering and got a repeated bloom cycle into July last year.. that was strange.

  8. Deb H says:

    The only shade tree for my front yard is a 60 yr old soft maple(Norway?) and I’m afraid I might loose it. It branches very close to the ground and over the years many branches have been removed, some very large. The collars are actively growing but not fast enough to cover the area before the center’s rot/are eaten away. Now the bark is oozing near the ground beneath a former branch that was over 18″ in diameter. I can see a cavity behind the stump but have been hesitant to poke around in case someone larger than a squirrel is living inside.
    I have seen old trees in park’s whose cavities have been filled with concrete and the tree’s have survived. Do you know anything about this practice or why it is no longer done? There is a large limb growing directly above the area in question and it faces our house, so there is also the question of safety. Our tree looks healthy in every other way. I know I need to call an arborist but I want to educate myself first. My internet searches have been unsuccessful so far. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Deb H. Filling cavities with cement made the trees unable to bend with the wind as they need to do, and more vulnerable therefore to storm damage. Also, research by Dr. Alex Shigo and other arboriculturists in recent years revealed that trees have a way of “compartmentalizing,” or walling off the affected area, to protect themselves from further damage. It’s a fascinating subject , really, but it’s why we don’t fill cavities with cement any longer. See you soon again. (And yes, call an arborist; in fact consult with a couple and get their opinions and bids, which can vary widely.)

  9. ilona says:

    I’m so glad I found your site through apartmenttherapy; I miss not seeing your work in MS Living.

    I’m a little late to this post, but pruning for me also means renewal. It was a therapeutic and meditative activity for me when I was grieving the loss of my mom a few years ago. Every time I see the quince bloom in the spring, I know that it is happy that I pruned it the year before.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ilona, and thanks for the kind words. Glad that Maxwell et al at Apartment Therapy sent you over. Pruning can be very meditative and feel very productive, yes. Me, too. I hope we see you here soon again.

  10. Sandir says:

    Reading your pruning basics and we have an old pear tree which gave us delicious pears. We just moved to the property and have had the large oaks and a Siberian elm pruned and cabled by an arborist. But I want to take care of the pear myself. Iknow which branches are water sprouts and out they come tomorrow – OR is this not the right time of year to remove them? Can I also cut one of the large branchesshorter also to lighten the load on it. It is very heavy and bent over and I am afraid that wind and snow will snap it off.

    Thank you fir a wonderful site which I discovered by accident. I love the frogboys. I always loved whenever you were on Martha and your articles in the magazine. I am going to look for your book at the library.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sandir. Thank you for the very kind words. Typically you prune them in winter (some orchardists do it in summer and there is dicsussion whether that leads to less resprouting), but I agree with your instinct: if there is danger of a branch falling off, I’d take it now, and water sprouts can some off anytime without harm. Then in January or February you can continue cleaning it up as needed. Hope to see you againnow that we are “reunited”. :)

  11. Dennis says:

    just wanted to thank you for the excellent website, I’ve been a big fan since I found you –

    in looking through the pruning sections, I have to share a short story – way back in my earlier years, when I also knew nothing of pruning, I had a beautiful flowering cherry in my back yard, which I was intent on getting to ‘bush out’ for more blooms, so pruned severely – you know what happened, over a period of time it shot upward, weakened the tree, and the whole thing fell over in a heavy windstorm several years ago – imagine my surprise one morning, and my chagrin – all because of what I did in the early 80’s – things are better now…

    thanks again, look forward to every posting

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Dennis. I think we have all done our share of misguided pruning; I know I have. I hate to think of some of the torture I inflicted in the early days. Glad to hear we have both learned from our wayward ways. :) See you soon again, and thanks for the encouraging words.

  12. Deena says:

    Is it a good idea to prune Stewartia ( and other trees) in such a way that “the birds can fly thru it'”?? And should I cut back by half the long branches that are up at the top and look gangly ? Help!!

  13. pepito says:

    A vitex we have had for some 15 years gives us heady blossoms on spiky smooth canes (which themselves are neat garden stakes, esp. for containers). The canes are much like water shoots but here they’re productive. After blooms, we chop ’em.
    How often should we prune the entire vitex to the ground? (This we have done maybe three times, when it became too unsightly.)

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Pepito. What climate zone do you live in? I think it’s up to you how much you want to prune (doing so in late winter) but in cold zones (I think it’s hardy to 6, not here) the winter does the job for you. :) It can be a small tree if happy and left to its own devices in a favorable climate, no? Like this.

  14. Margy Stinson says:

    We have an old, miniature Bradford pear. We have not kept up with the pruning. Thus, it has many of the straight up limbs. When pruning, should the cut be straight across, or angled in some direction? I enjoy the tree just for it’s ornamentation. Can I “shape it up” after the pruning out of the straight branches? Also, the last two years, several of the branches have just died on the ends. Disease? Hopeless?
    I also have a magnificent Australian Pine that has many dead branches. What I read isn’t very favorable. Is there any way to save it?
    I also have an OLD weigelia. It sends us gobs of shoots from the roots. I am getting to an age where I can’t do all of this. Will we just need to take out the bush? Is there any way to keep those sprouts from coming up? They take a lot of work.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Margy. Cut off the water sprouts (vertical shoots) down at the base without injuring the bark of the trunk…so basically flush, but not gouging into the trunk. Cut them all out. And yes, then remove up to a third of the rest of the growth to open up the center and shape the tree as instructed in this fruit tree pruning article. Since I cannot see the tree who knows what the tip dieback is or how severe, but those limbs may be on their way out; depends how far back it goes and what causes it (can be fireblight or canker or winter injury or … meaning again can’t tell from here).

      Ditto with the pine…but don’t expect it to flush out lots of new growth and be restored to its former glory. If without the dead limbs it would be a mess, not much to do.

      Old weigelas that have gone unpruned are a mess, you are correct. I would wait till growth is just beginning (first signs of life) and cut it to near the ground and see if it will rejuvenate. Otherwise remove.

  15. Sebette says:

    Hi Margaret, wish you were giving workshops here in NC. I have recently moved two growing zones north and starting over in the garden.
    I have done some “rambo” pruning and had plants bounce back nicely …old azaleas cut back almost to the ground.
    I planted pear, apple and peach trees back in the fall and just did their first hair cut last week (a little late here) and I was totally traumatized by the experience. Just hope they all branch properly. I do have pretty pink and white blooms in the house and porch from them though.
    Thanks for all your lovely and inspiring photos too.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Sebette. Love the “Rambo” pruning description. Hilarious! Am doing LOTS of that here. Garden is getting old, needs a tough hand. :)

  16. Joyce G says:

    Hi Martha, I have been following your page for awhile now,,beautiful slide shows and garden,,and I love the title of your book,,I have felt that way in my garden,,its always given me peace when I needed it.. We have a dwarf pear,,over the years its developed knobs on the branches where I have pruned the suckers,,they are a bit unsightly to me, can I cut them off at the base which would leave a good size opening (6-8″) on the branch or should I just “bear” with them. Thank you for your web page,,enjoy the spring.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Joyce. No, don’t “flush cut” as it is called — too much damage to the trunk. I have the same thing on older trees here (magnolias and apples, too) and I know it’s not gorgeous, but flush cutting will open up too many places for problems to begin.

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