What To Prune During Winter

Gardening doesn’t stop once the harvest is over and the weather gets colder. If you want to have a beautiful garden when spring comes around again, you have to do some winter work.

Pruning your trees and plants in the winter is very important for both the health and appearance of your garden.

It reduces disease and stress on your plants and keeps them looking neat and tidy once they bloom again.

While there are some plants that can wait until spring for their pruning, many others benefit from cutting during the winter months.

Use this guide to determine what you should prune this winter and how, and what can wait.

Main Pruning Tasks For Winter

Some winter pruning is good for all types of trees and plants. Other pruning jobs are only for specific trees and plants.

Diseased Or Dead Wood

No matter the tree or shrub, you can and should prune dead or diseased wood during the winter.

Cutting away dead wood provides more space for new growth. Pruning diseased branches keeps the problem from spreading.

To prune dead or diseased branches, cut the wood right where it meets a larger branch or stem. Even if there’s only partial damage, you should prune the entire branch.

Fruit Trees

Many fruit trees need moderate pruning in late winter. Cut away branches so the remaining ones are well-spaced.

Always trim away any clearly dead or diseased limbs and fruit. Remove any weak or small vertical limbs to promote further growth of the established branches.

You should also prune down any sharp, V-shaped crotch angles. These can pinch bark, which traps water and can lead to rot.

A sharp or narrow crotch angle is anything 17 degrees or less.

If there are “suckers,” or odd limbs growing from the roots of the tree, prune them as soon as possible. These can take energy away from the growth of more viable branches.

Finally, if any branches have grown to cross over each other, trim back one to keep the branches separate.

“New” Wood Blooming Shrubs

“New” and “old” wood refers to when flowering occurs.

Some shrubs form their blooms on wood that develops in the coming spring (“new” wood). Others bloom on wood that grew during the previous year (“old” wood).

By removing any dead stems from new wood shrubs, you’re making room for new growth come springtime.

Some examples of new wood blooming shrubs are:

  • panicle hydrangeas
  • smooth hydrangeas
  • roses
  • dogwoods
  • St. John’s wort
  • butterfly bush

Hydrangeas can have a lot of new growth you can prune back to reshape the bush. Find the newest stems you want to trim and cut right about the first or second node.

Some types like smooth hydrangeas also benefit from winter pruning because it reduces the weight on the shrub’s frame.

Dense Multi-Stemmed Shrubs

You can cut shrubs like glossy abelia and bush clover right to the ground during winter.

These plants grow thick and fast, so cutting them back so far is a must. It keeps them at a reasonable height while also preventing overcrowding of the stems.

Evergreen Shrubs And Trees

Evergreens may appear vibrant during the winter when everything else is dead, but in reality, they are dormant. That means that even though they stay “green,” no new growth will occur until spring.

To make way for this new growth, you should prune certain evergreens in late winter. These include yew, boxwood, and holly bushes, as well as spruce and fir trees.

If any foliage is brown and dead, you can trim it away to improve the plant’s appearance for the winter. Don’t forget to trim away any suckers at the base of the tree.

Shade Trees

Tall trees with thick foliage in the spring are known as shade trees. These include oaks, maple, and elm, and winter is the best time to prune them.

This is because you can reduce the spread of diseases like oak wilt and Dutch elm disease while they’re dormant.

You should cut back any shade trees infected with disease or blight, including those normally pruned in spring, in winter.


As with trees and shrubs, vines fall dormant during the winter. This makes it the perfect time to thin your vines out.

If they’re looking a little all over the place, trim back the wild leaders to tidy things up.

Why Is Pruning During Winter Important?

There are several benefits to pruning in the winter.

Better View And Access

First, you can better see the branches and stems that need cutting because of the lack of foliage.

It’s also much easier to reach these problem areas without the leaves in the way.

Diseases Are Dormant

Tree diseases are also dormant in winter, just like their hosts.

By pruning away diseased branches in the winter, you reduce the risk of spreading them around.

More Time To Heal

The dormancy of your plants in winter also gives your plants more time to heal from pruning. This puts less stress on them than if you were to cut in the spring.

It also rejuvenates smaller or weaker trees by removing dead weight. Come spring, these trees can put more energy towards their healthy branches.

Remove Storm Hazards

Finally, winter pruning can remove safety hazards caused by bad weather. Snowstorms and high winds can bring down dead or diseased wood much easier than healthy wood.

Removing the old wood before these storms hit can save your property.

Tips To Make Pruning Easier

Here are some handy tips and tricks to make your winter pruning as effective as possible.

How To Know If Wood Is Dead Or Just Dormant

Since all plants and trees benefit from having dead wood removed, it’s important to know how to identify it.

Find a small twig on your plant or tree with a pencil-sized tip. Bend it backwards on itself.

If the twig snaps sharply and looks dry inside, then the twig’s branch is dead. If the twig is bendy and only splits, then it’s dormant.

You can also take a small knife or your fingernail to perform a scratch test.

Lightly scratch the twig’s bark and check the growth underneath. Green, moist growth below the bark means the branch is dormant.

If the wood below is brown, black, or gray, then the branch is likely dead and in need of pruning.

Sanitize Your Tools

Always keep your pruning tools clean between trimming each plant or tree. This helps reduce the spread of any potential diseases to other areas.

Don’t use bleach to sanitize, though, as it can be corrosive to the plants.

Instead, use Lysol or rubbing alcohol between each use.

Prune Close And At An Angle

When pruning, you want to remove as much growth as possible without losing the main branches and stems. Trim no more than a quarter inch above the buds or nodes of the branches.

If the branch has alternating buds that grow on opposite sides of the branch, cut at a 45-degree angle. If the buds are in pairs on opposite sides of each other, cut flat across right above the buds.

Prune On A Dry Day

Pruning on a dry and mild day is good for both you and your garden!

You don’t have to be out in the freezing cold and wet, and you prevent the spreading of waterborne plant diseases. Colder weather can also damage the cuts made from pruning.

Pruning Jobs That Can Wait For Spring

You don’t need to heavily prune every plant in winter, even if they are dormant.

Some are too delicate, while others need their old wood in order to bloom properly.

Spring-Blooming Plants

The most important thing to remember during winter pruning is to leave spring-blooming plants alone. These plants bloom on “old” wood from the previous year.

So, cutting the plants in winter is depriving them of that old wood. This means you’ll lose most of the blooms come springtime.

These are some of the old wood bloomers that you should wait to prune until spring and summer:

  • Lilac
  • Rhododendron
  • Forsythia
  • Beautybush
  • Flowering cherry
  • Mountain Laurel


Many rose varieties are fickle plants that need a lot of delicate care.

If you prune too soon before spring, they’ll have little protection from frosts. You should wait until after winter is over to prune back your rose bushes.

Bleeder Trees

Apart from elm, it’s best to prune “bleeder” trees, or those with a lot of sap, in the summer. Pruning in winter won’t damage these trees, but it’s a lot messier because of the greater production of sap.

Pruning elms in the winter might be worth the possible mess because there’s less chance of spreading Dutch elm disease.

To End

Winter pruning has benefits that are both cosmetic and good for the health of your plants. Even plants that should have heavier pruning in the spring will benefit from having dead and diseased branches removed.

Other plants and trees need full pruning during the winter to prepare them for the new growing season. So don’t put your gardening gloves away when it starts getting colder. If you prune your plants this winter, you’ll appreciate the health and beauty of them this spring even more.