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Pruning trees, shrubs this winter


The purpose of pruning trees and shrubs is to remove dead, damaged, diseased, crossed and rubbing branches, and help to shape and manage their size. The ideal time to prune is late winter or early spring (February or March) when it is easier to see the plant’s structure. Pruning at these times also lessens the time pruning wounds are exposed to the elements.


Hand Pruners are used for trimming branches 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch in diameter. Scissor types provide a cleaner cut. The lighter weight the better.

Loppers are used for cutting thicker branches and thinner, harder-to-reach stems. These pruners have long handles, some of which are telescopic to increase length.

Pruning saws are used for larger branches too big for loppers.

Pole pruners are used for branches beyond arm’s reach.

Keep your tools sharpened and in good repair. Cleaning and oiling them helps to prevent rust and ready them for future use. If you have removed diseased branches, disinfect the blades with a 1:10 ratio of bleach to water, and oil afterwards.

What to prune

Prune branches that are dead, damaged, insect-infested, or crossing or rubbing together. Regular (yearly) pruning will maintain the shape and proper growth of your trees and shrubs.

When to prune

Trees and shrubs that bloom after the end of June should be pruned in late winter or early spring.

Trees and shrubs that bloom before the end of June should be pruned after they have flowered (e.g., forsythia, lilac, viburnum).

Pruning techniques

Trim small branches and twigs on a slant 1/4 inch above a bud. The cut should face the outside of the plant.

Get to know the parts of the branch and tree. The branch collar is the swelled-up area under the branch that connects the branch and tree. It is easy to spot on some tree species, not so easy on others. The branch bark ridge is the area between the branch and trunk that is raised just slightly higher than the branch. If you think of the branch as an arm, the bark ridge is the shoulder, and the collar is the underarm.

Eyeball the spot you will cut. The goal is to make a cut slightly beyond the branch collar, far enough to not cut the collar itself but close enough to not leave a stub.

Cut large branches in increments, from the outside in, to prevent the bark from tearing at the final cut. The first cut should be made 12 inches to 18 inches from the trunk and on the underside of the branch. The second cut (to remove the entire branch) should be made a few inches beyond the first cut and on the topside. (This will decrease the weight of the remaining branch.) The third cut should be made at the collar, leaving no stub. (The collar is the slight bulge where the branch joins the trunk.) Be careful here, cutting into the collar could affect how well, or if, the pruning wound heals.


Keep equipment sharp and in good repair.

Wear leather gloves and be aware of your fingers relative to the tool in use.

Wear eye protection.

Be careful using ladders on uneven ground. Have someone hold the ladder while you are on it.

Be aware of falling branches.

If the job is beyond your or your tools’ capabilities, employ a certified arborist to handle the project.

By Norma Landis

Norma Landis is an OSU Extension Greene County master gardener volunteer.