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Pruning Shrubs – Techniques- How and When to Trim Bushes

Pruning shrubs regularly will keep them more healthy, will maintain a manageable size for them and will help them to produce more flowers. When it comes to trimming bushes, the most important factors to take into consideration are proper pruning techniques for shrubs and when to trim bushes.

The trick really is knowing where to cut the shrubs and what time of the year to make those cuts.

Keep reading to learn more about the basics of shrub trimming and get an idea of which shrubs like to be pruned before flowering, and which prefer the trimming to be done after blooming.

Choosing the right tools for pruning shrubs

When choosing bush trimming tools, be sure to keep in mind the size of the branch you need to trim. This will not only make your job easier, it will make it safer as well.

The proper sized tools will make a cleaner cut which won’t tear the bark of the branch or crack it. Your hand will thank you for making the correct choice.

Be sure your tools are sharp and clean to avoid transferring diseases. This post shows how to clean and winterize garden tools.

The following tools are some that are commonly used for pruning bushes and shrubs.

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Bypass pruners

A bypass pruner is a type of pruning sheer that is used to cut soft branches, and to deadhead flowers. It has a curved sharp side plus a piece of metal known as the hook.

Together the blades give you a clean cut on a branch or stem. Use bypass pruners on branches up to 1/2 inch. (1.27cm)

Orange bypass pruners.

Ratcheting pruners

These pruners, also known as ratchet hand pruners, are considered anvil pruners. An anvil cut is more powerful than a bypass cut and uses minimal effort. 

Ratchet pruners are ideal for pruning dead wood and can easily cut a branch up to 1 inch in size. (2.54 cm)

Loppers

These tough pruners have long handles and are used to prune out small branches and twigs. Their long handle allows you to reach farther and higher into the bush. They also give additional leverage necessary for thicker cuts.

Loppers can cut branches up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. (3.81 cm) They are very useful for cutting out long canes of deadwood on overgrown perennials such as forsythia bushes or hydrangeas.

Loppers

Pruning saws

A pruning saw is a tool with a long blade and comfortable handle. It is designed for cutting through thick branches of shrubs up to 10 inches wide. (25.4 cm)

There are a few types of pruning saws, but a hand pruning saw is most often used for shrubs with larger branches.

Hand saw

Hedge shears

Is your shrub growing in a hedge shape? Then hedge shears may be the best tool for pruning.

This multi-purpose tool is used for shaping shrubs. They cut and maintain sharp edges on shrubs grown into hedges and work best on branches smaller than 1/2 inch. (2.54 cm)

Green hedge trimmers.

When to trim bushes

Now that you have the right tool to cut bushes, your next question will likely be “when to prune shrubs?”

Many shrubs have specific times that they should be trimmed back for best flowering. However, when shrubs have diseases or problems, it is perfectly fine to trim them any time of the year.

Prune dead and diseased wood or shrubs with damaged branches anytime you notice this condition. Leaving diseased wood saps the plant of strength and it likely won’t get better on its own.

When to prune spring flowering shrubs

The rule of thumb with spring flowering shrubs is to trim them as soon as they have finished blooming. This type of plant blooms on “old wood.” This means that buds for their flowers were formed the previous summer.

Ensure that this type of shrub pruning takes place before the buds form to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future blooms.

Flowers in a collage with words Spring blooming shrubs.

Some common shrubs that bloom in spring are these:

  • Flowering quince
  • Rhododendron
  • Camellia
  • Forsythia
  • Common lilac
  • Azalea
  • Viburnum
  • Mountain laurel
  • Witch hazel
  • Weigela
  • Gardenia

When to prune summer flowering shrubs

For shrubs that bloom in summer, time your pruning for late winter or early spring. The reason is that most of these shrubs bloom on “new wood.”

Prune these shrubs as soon as they come out of dormancy and start showing some growth.

Flowers in a collage with words Summer blooming shrubs.

Common summer flowering shrubs are these:

Correct pruning techniques for shrubs

It is important to use proper pruning techniques when trimming shrubs. There are five basic types of pruning cuts that you’ll find yourself making on your bushes.

Some take minutes and others may require the better part of a few hours.

Deadheading shrubs

Deadheading is the practice of removing the finished flowers from a shrub. Doing this not only makes the bush look better, but has many other benefits.

Paniculate hydrangea with blooms removed and word deadheading.

The practice controls how seeds are dispersed and redirects the energy of the shrub from producing seeds to helping the roots and encouraging more lush growth.

To deadhead your bushes, either pinch off the spent blooms with your fingers, or cut them with hand pruners. When the flowers are removed, it encourages the shrub to bush out and will often give you more blooms later.

Spent blooms can be added to your compost pile and will turn into organic matter in time, which can be used to fertilize future plants.

Heading back shrubs

When you cut back a branch to a stub, bud or smaller branch, you are doing what is called heading back pruning. Normally, this will give you a lot of vigorous, dense shoots that grow upright from just below your cuts.

Rose bush with tips of each branch removed and words heading back.

Heading back a shrub controls the size of it but allows you to maintain its natural shape.

To head back, use hand pruners to cut the tips of the stems off at different lengths all over the shrub. Some shrubs, such as holly bushes and crepe myrtles, need this practice done every year to maintain a good shape and stay manageable in size.

Thinning shrubs

Thinning a shrub encourages thicker foliage growth and gives you more flowers but does not reduce the height of the bush.

You’ll need to use pruners or other cutting tools, such as loppers, to thin a shrub.

Rosebush with canes removed and word Thinning.

Look for some of the oldest stems and use your tool to remove them at the base of the bush. Be sure to remove some from the center of the plant to encourage good air circulation and allow more light to reach the middle of the bush. 

Don’t remove too many stems. Cutting about 1/3 of the old stems is a good rule of thumb.

Not all shrubs need thinning, but some fast growing ones, like forsythias, lilacs, and hydrangeas, will benefit from thinning each year.

Shearing shrubs

Shearing, also called hedge trimming, is most often done on shrubs that are grown as topiaries or hedges. Holly and boxwoods are a few shrubs that are sheared to prune them.

To shear a shrub, you can use either manual hedge shears for a small bush or a power hedge trimmer if your shrub hedge is large.

Man with hedge trimmers shearing a hedge.

Shearing controls the growth of the shrub and makes it as dense as possible, since it encourages new growth. Note that if your hedge is a flowering type, shearing may reduce the number of flowers, since it will remove flower buds.

Rejuvenating shrubs

Sometimes your bushes will become so overgrown that you need to practice rejuvenation pruning. This is also called renovation pruning or renewal pruning.

There are two ways to rejuvenate a shrub – in stages or all at once.

To do the job in stages, remove about 1/3 of the most woody stems each year until you have cleared them all out. This will allow you to enjoy some flowers each year if your shrub blooms on old wood.

Rejuvenating in stages is great for slow growing shrubs and those that don’t have a lot of woody stems at the base.

A more drastic form of rejuvenation is to cut all the stems down to the ground to within a few inches.

Rose bush with all the canes removed at the base and word Rejuvenation.

This type of pruning is best done for fast-growing shrubs that bloom on new wood. These will often recover their growth in the same year.

Be careful with drastic rejuvenation. Some shrubs, such as redbuds, may not recover if all the branches are removed.

Tips for making the right cuts when you prune shrubs

Cutting shrubs is not just a case of having the right tools and making your shrubs neater. You also need to how how to make the best cut.

Avoid cuts that leave long stubs or steep angles. Healing will be slow with these cuts and may allow disease to enter. Long steep cuts also weaken flower buds.

Don’t make a cut too close to a flower bud, or you will weaken it as well as the stem.

Four types of pruning cuts with a check mark above the right cut.

The best cut is one made on a 45 degree angle about 1/4 inch above a leaf bud. An exception to this is if your branch has two buds opposite each other. 

In this case, you can make a flat cut 1/4 inch above the buds.

Now that you know how and when to prune shrubs, don’t be afraid to give it a go. Shrubs are pretty forgiving and the more you practice it, the easier the job becomes.

Those few cuts made each spring or fall will reward you with more flowers, and who doesn’t love that?

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Pin this post for when and how to trim bushes

Would you like a reminder of this post for how to trim shrubs, the best time to trim shrubs and some common types of pruning cuts?

Just pin this image to one of your gardening boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later. You can also watch our video on YouTube.

Hand with pruners near a shrub and words Learn about 4 types of pruning cuts, when to prune old and new wood and types of tools to use.

Yield: 1 printable

Printable - When to Prune Shrubs

Hand in garden glove with bypass pruners trimming shrubs.

It's important to prune shrubs to keep them looking their best. But how do you do it, and when should you cut back bushes?

Print out the graphic below and add it to your gardening journal. It gives information on the types of pruning cuts for shrubs and also shows when to prune both spring blooming and summer blooming shrubs.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Active Time 5 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes
Difficulty easy
Estimated Cost $1

Materials

  • Heavy card stock or glossy photo paper

Tools

  • Computer printer

Instructions

  1. Load the heavy card stock or glossy photo paper into your computer printer.
  2. Choose portrait layout and if possible "fit to page" in your settings.
  3. Print the calendar and add to your gardening journal.

Notes

Printable showing types of pruning cuts and when to prune each type of shrub - both old and new wood.

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