Time Your Trimming: When to Trim Bushes and Trees

trees that have been ornamentally trimmed and shaped

Ever heard the phrase, “Timing is everything?” Well, when it comes to trimming your bushes and trees, truer words have never been spoken. Trimming at the right time is the first step to having healthy shrubs and trees.

Cuts you can make any time of year

DIY trimming can be intimidating for many homeowners, but here are a few cuts you can’t mess up. Remember the three Ds: dead, damaged, or diseased. If you have dead branches, limbs that are damaged (by a storm, for example), or branches that are showing signs of disease, you can remove these limbs any time of year.

Tools for the job

Since you can cut the three Ds any time of year, make sure your tools are always ready to go. Keeping them sharp and clean are the most important things you can do to ensure your pruning is successful. 

You can file your blades yourself or take them to a shop. Use rubbing alcohol or a diluted bleach solution to clean your pruning tools between trees or after you make pruning cuts on a diseased branch.

Common tools:

  • Loppers
  • Pruning saw
  • Bypass pruning shears 

Flowering bushes (evergreen or deciduous)

lilac bush with bright purple flowers
Holger Schué | Pixabay

To determine the best time to trim flowering bushes, ask yourself this question: When does it bloom? If it blooms in spring, trim the bush right after it stops flowering. If it blooms in summer, wait and trim it in late winter or early spring before it starts to put on new growth.

Here are a few bushes that bloom in spring:

Trim these right after they finish flowering. Soon after these bushes flower, they set blooms for next year. (These plants flower on “old wood.”) If you prune at the wrong time (too late in the growing season), you’ll cut off all of next year’s beautiful blooms.

✓ Forsythia
✓ Mockorange
✓ Lilac
✓ Deutzia
✓ Flowering quince
✓ Rhododendron
✓ Viburnum
✓ Rambling or climbing roses (certain species)
✓ Azaleas 

*Some azaleas and the oakleaf hydrangea are considered summer bloomers. However, they should still be pruned after they bloom in the summer because they’ll set buds soon after.

Here are a few bushes that bloom in summer:

Trim these before they start to grow (late winter or early spring). These bushes will put on new blooms soon after they start growing in spring. This is known as flowering on “new wood,” so it’s important to trim them before they put on new spring growth.

✓ Rose-of-Sharon (Althea)
✓ Glossy abelia
✓ Anthony Waterer Spirea
✓ Glossy abelia
✓ Butterfly bush
✓ Sweetshrub
✓ Tea Olive
✓ Japanese spirea
✓ Floribunda roses and most shrub roses

If you want to find out more, check out UGA, TAMU.

Evergreen bushes

holly bush with red berries
PublicDomainPictures | Pixabay

Hollies, pyracantha, photinias, and other broad-leaved evergreen bushes are low-maintenance additions to your landscape. They require only light thinning or shaping cuts to keep them healthy. 

When should I prune my evergreen bushes? Although little pruning is required, sometimes light pruning is helpful to keep your bushes in top form. If so, plan to do that in late winter or early spring before they start growing but after the danger of frost has passed. If the evergreen is a flowering plant, follow the guidelines in the previous section.

If you have arborvitae, hemlocks, and yews, you can prune them twice during the season, if needed. Right before spring growth and in early summer are both acceptable.

Deciduous trees

close-up of red maple leaves on a thin branch
Jenifer Kramer | Pixabay

Late winter or early spring is also the best time to trim your deciduous trees (maples, dogwoods, poplars, birch, etc.). (Deciduous means that the tree loses its leaves in the fall.) Oaks, according to Iowa State University, are an exception: They prefer to be trimmed during the winter months before early spring. Deciduous conifers should be pruned after their needles fall in late winter.

Flowering trees

white blooms from a flowering dogwood
stanze | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Like flowering shrubs, you have to know when your flowering trees bloom to determine the proper window to prune them.

Here are a few trees that bloom in spring:

Prune these trees right after they flower.

  • Crabapple
  • Dogwood
  • Bradford pear
  • Flowering cherry tree

Here are a few trees that bloom in summer:

Trim these before they start to grow (late winter or early spring).

  • Crape myrtle
  • Goldenrain Tree
  • Sourwood

To find out more about flowering trees, check out UGA.

Evergreen trees

close-up of pine spruce tree branches
Юлия Зяблова | Pixabay

Remember that dead, damaged, or diseased branches can be removed any time of year. Otherwise, evergreen trees, like spruce or magnolia, don’t require much pruning. In general, late in the dormant season (late winter or early spring) is the best time to trim if needed. Ask your local arborist for the best time to prune your particular type of evergreen tree. 

If you’re having problems because the tree has outgrown its space, don’t focus on pruning. Research the normal growth pattern for your species. If it’s growing as it should, you’ll likely need to remove the tree and find it a new home.

Fruit trees

close-up of a red apple hanging from a tree branch
Karsten Paulick | Pixabay

There are two main types of pruning for fruit trees: dormant pruning and summer pruning. Dormant pruning is done in late winter or early spring after the threat of frost has passed. The timing of summer pruning varies by type of tree and climate. 

Although two prunings are possible, some climates and trees are better suited for one season over the other. Another caveat: The age of your tree also determines when and how you’ll need to prune.

Remember, for every rule there is an exception, and if you need to prune your fruit trees, the best advice is local advice. Check with your state’s Cooperative Extension service to learn the recommended pruning times for your type of tree in your state.

If trimming your trees and bushes is too much for your schedule any time of year, contact a local lawn care professional. They’ll time your trimming perfectly and keep your bushes trim and healthy all year round.

Main Photo Credit: Pixabay

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.