How to prune your trees and shrubs

Guide written by:
Albert, Manager of a gardening service, Leicester

Albert, Manager of a gardening service, Leicester

48 guides
Your trees and shrubs need to be trimmed on a regular basis to keep them healthy and looking their best. To do so, you'll need to know when to prune, what technique to use and which tools to use. From formative and maintenance pruning to coppicing, read on for our top tips on pruning your trees and shrubs.

Important features

  • Benefits of pruning
  • Pruning technique
  • Tools
  • Season

Why prune your trees and shrubs?

Trees and shrubs can play a number of roles in the garden; they can be used as decoration, to create shade, offer privacy or even provide fruit. How you choose to prune your trees and shrubs depends on what you want from your plants. That said, pruning is almost always beneficial for plants.

Pruning allows you to get rid of any branches that are using up the plant's energy in order to encourage healthy development. Another good reason to prune is to shape your plants. This can be done from the time they are planted right through to adulthood; this is known as formative pruning (or training).

When it comes to pruning fruit trees, the aim is, of course, to encourage a high fruit yield. Other trees or shrubs, like walnut trees or Japanese laurel, can only handle conservative pruning.

Tools and equipment

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Please note: this is a non-exhaustive list. Be sure to match your PPE to the task at hand.

When to prune your ornamental trees and shrubs

As the name suggests, ornamental trees and shrubs are essentially decorative in nature. They are chosen for their attractive foliage, flowers or bark.

Each type of ornamental tree or shrub has its own characteristics in terms of cold-hardiness, blossoming and how they develop. Every plant has its own specific set of needs, particularly when it comes to pruning. In terms of development, some species (such as elaeagnus or pyracantha) tend to grow quickly and wildly, and will require at least two prunings a year.

As a general rule, pruning should always be done after the tree or shrub has finished blossoming. However, there are exceptions: some warm climate varieties, for example, should be pruned at the end of winter or at the start of spring (taking care to avoid any cold spells or frost).

Formative pruning: shaping your young plants

Formative pruning is the process of training a young plant into the shape you want from the moment it is planted, whether it is planted in the ground or in a pot. 

This approach is particularly recommended for fruit trees or big, shady trees such as mulberry trees.

In these cases, the idea is to encourage the growth of horizontal branches over any growing vertically; any branches growing upwards should be removed regularly. The aim is to create an umbrella-like shape to ensure the tree provides a lot of shade.

Another example of a plant that needs formative pruning is the bonsai tree which will require trimming throughout its entire life. Topiary is a more extreme example of formative pruning that involves sculpting trees and shrubs into whatever shape you like (cloud-pruning is a popular option!).

A great way to let your imagination run wild, topiary makes pruning a real art form that anyone can try their hand at.

Maintenance pruning to maintain form

Maintenance pruning, unlike formative pruning, is carried out on plants that have already matured or, in other words, reached their desired shape and volume. This kind of pruning applies to both individual plants and hedges. This technique involves getting rid of any growth from the previous year to allow a plant to keep its shape.

Most shrubs should be pruned in the spring or autumn, but it all depends on the blossoming cycle and hardiness of the plant.

You will have to read up on the individual pruning requirements of your shrubs.

Pruning can also be carried out in the summer, as long as care is taken to avoid periods of drought or very hot weather. Trees, on the other hand, are best pruned in the wintertime.

Coppicing: cutting back your shrubs

Unlike maintenance pruning, the purpose of coppicing is to remove the old branches from the base of the plant to promote the growth of new shoots.

Your shrubs should be cut back extensively every three years or so. This process is relatively straightforward: simply identify the oldest branches and cut them back using pruning shears or a handsaw.

Tips for pruning your trees and shrubs

No matter what kind of pruning technique you plan on using (formative, maintenance or coppicing), it is essential to use well-maintained, sharp tools. Your tools will determine how successful your pruning efforts are and will affect the health of any plants you tackle.

Use well-sharpened tools to create neat cutssecateurs, a chainsaw or a hedge trimmer can all be used. This will help to promote healthy healing which, in turn, will allow you to prevent disease.

It's important to remember to clean your blades between pruning tasks. Clean them of resin or any other residue using a specialist product. Disinfect the blades regularly using alcohol or diluted bleach to avoid spreading disease between your plants.
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Guide written by:

Albert, Manager of a gardening service, Leicester 48 guides écrits

Albert, Manager of a gardening service, Leicester
For the past several years, I've been running a landscape gardening and design service for both private homeowners and businesses. I manage a great team of professional landscapers. While our company designs and maintains green spaces, I use my expertise in tools and techniques to help clients keep up and enhance their flower beds and plant gardens.

I went to business school and got my start in life working in the hospitality industry, but I soon discovered I had a passion for landscaping and a green thumb to boot! I started landscaping for the local authority at just the right time: since some major infrastructural changes were underway in the community, I got tons of on-the-job technical experience.

When not at work, I'm just as passionate about gardening, something I share with my wife. Together, we designed and planted our garden from scratch. We take pride in making sure the entire garden, including our vegetable plot, is in tiptop shape. There's always a lot of DIY to do around the garden as well, whether you're building an arbour, maintaining the garden shed, putting down some paving, or fixing a fence.

After a day of gardening, we enjoy just sitting back and admiring the fruits of our labour, so to speak. We get more sun than the rest of the UK, so we're pretty lucky. Now, let us give back and help you with advice and tips for gardening tools, maintenance or improvement. You, too, will have a green thumb before you know it!

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