Woody Shrub Pruning 101 with Susan Driver


Pruning your woody shrubs is important to keep them healthy, attractive, and growing. For many types of plants, now is prime time to break out the pruning shears and get to work in the garden! To help get you prepared, we chatted with one of our most knowledgeable plant team experts, Susan Driver. Keep reading to get her tips on how to prune certain shrubs, which tools she thinks are essential, and how to avoid the most common pruning mistakes.

terrain: Hi Susan! Thanks so much for joining us today! What are a couple of your go-to pruning approaches in the spring?

Susan: Hey there! Hand pruning allows for good control when I’m cutting back or cutting out branches that I want removed to maintain a natural look (a more selective pruning approach). To shape a formal hedge where all branches are cut back to the same length, hedge shears are a much better choice! I love sharing this resource as a guide for folks to determine which types of plants they should be pruning and how.

terrain: Do you have any “best pruning practices” people should keep in mind when they’re pruning?

Susan: Definitely. When removing branches, always cut back to a bud or lateral branch. It is really important to know your shrub and research the time of year it should be pruned because they’re all different!

terrain: What are the main benefits of pruning your woody shrubs?

Susan: There are quite a few! To control size, to improve or maintain shape, to remove all dead or diseased wood, and to promote flower strength in some flowering shrubs.

terrain: What are the essential tools you need for pruning woody shrubs?

Susan: First, I like to recommend a bypass-type of pruner. A sharp blade is so important as is keeping that blade clean of debris and sap. A pair of lopping shears (or long-handled pruners) are much stronger than hand pruners and are suitable for cutting through larger branches. Long handles also allow you to reach into bushes, especially nice for thorny or thick bushes. Lastly, I’d recommend a hand-pruning saw for hard-to-reach places and branches that are larger than one inch.

terrain: What time of year is best for pruning woody shrubs?

Susan: Here in zone 6-7, it depends on the shrub, and will vary considerably. Pruning promotes new growth, so it needs to be done when tender growth isn’t damaged by cold. Pruning is generally done in the spring. Appropriate deciduous shrubs can be cut back hard when they are dormant in winter. Evergreens should wait until late spring, after the threat of frost is gone. Often, but not always, flowering shrubs benefit from pruning just after they finish flowering.

terrain: What are a couple common mistakes people make when they’re pruning their woody shrubs? What are the ways to avoid these mistakes?

Susan: The most common mistake is pruning hydrangea at the wrong time, which will affect their flower production. Spring-blooming hydrangea (mophead, oakleaf) should be pruned in the fall. They start developing buds late in the summer for next year’s blooms, blooming from “old wood.” Fall blooming (PeeGee and Annabelle) should be pruned in early spring. They can be cut back harder than the spring bloomers since they bloom on new growth, “new wood.” They can also be pruned in the fall and winter but may become weaker over time. And everblooming hydrangea can be cut any time since they bloom on both old and new wood, though it’s best to shape them in the fall.

"Pruning is actually more complicated than most people realize," Susan says. "I think people tend to over prune, creating 'meatball' shapes when a shrub should be pruned to maintain its natural form as best as possible. And remember, when in doubt, consult a professional!"

Like this post? Be sure to check out our Houseplants 101: Repotting New Plants, Making Your Garden Great with Annie Guilfoyle, and Spring Cleaning Landscape Tips with Roots.

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