University of Illinois Extension


Sharon Yiesla
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Lake County Unit

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Can I Prune Now?

As the year moves into late winter, a common question arises, "Can I prune now?" The answer to that question is that it depends on what you want to prune. Some woody plants can be successfully pruned now, others should be pruned at another time.

Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter) can be pruned now, while they are dormant. This is actually a good time, since it is easy to see the framework of the tree. Seeing the framework makes it easier to decide what needs to be removed.

Pruning trees that have been in the landscape for a while consists mostly of maintenance pruning. Remove branches that have been damaged by fall and winter storms, any branches that are crossing one another and branches that appear to have been attacked by disease and insects during the growing season. After that has been done, remove branches that will help improve the shape and form of the tree. Do not cut just to be cutting; always prune with a purpose.

Pruning shrubs at this time of year takes a little thought. Shrubs that will bloom in the spring, should NOT be pruned now. They formed their flower buds last summer. If they are pruned now, spring flowering will be greatly reduced. Spring flowering shrubs should not be pruned until after they are finished flowering. Shrubs that bloom mid to late summer can be pruned now, since they will not form their buds until spring time.

If you have shrubs that can be pruned now, don’t just give them a hair cut. Too often, shrub pruning consists of lopping off the top few inches of the shrub. Take time and do it right; prune selectively. There are two main types of cuts to make. Thinning cuts are made to remove a branch at the point where it emerges from the ground. Cutting out older branches to the ground will not only stimulate new growth, it will start to lower the height of the shrub. Doing this type of pruning on a yearly basis helps keep shrubs from becoming overly tall, while maintaining a natural shape. This type of pruning is perfect for multi-stemmed shrubs like old-fashioned lilac and red twig dogwood.

The other type of cut is known as heading back. With this cut, only a portion of a branch is removed back to a side branch or bud. Making a number of heading back cuts at different heights helps to open the shrub to sunlight and air circulation, which can reduce disease problems and enhance future flowering. As you look to prune shrubs, remember that good pruning is often a combination of both thinning cuts and heading back cuts.

Pruning cuts do not need to be painted or sealed. Just be sure to make good, clean cuts with sharp tools. Do not leave stubs as these will not produce new growth and may be entryways for disease and insects during the growing season. Your cut should be made near the bud, since this is the area from which new growth will emerge. Use sharp tools and be sure they are clean.

February - March 2002: Starting From Seed | Can I Prune Now? | Lady Beetles "Housing" in Illinois| New Septic System Publications | Weird Weather

Past Issues

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