Pruning 101: The basics for success

This is a great time of year to prune most deciduous trees and shrubs so let’s cover some tips and techniques.

What is pruning? Pure and simple, it’s removing the undesirable parts of plants.  

Good pruning improves plant health. It gets rid of dead and diseased parts and improves air circulation, shape, and appearance. It can also restrict growth, stimulate flowering and fruiting, and rejuvenate older plants.  

February to early March is the ideal time to prune many trees and shrubs because they are dormant. The cuts you make will add vigor without trauma. 

You need only a few tools. Start with hand pruners to clip small twigs and branches. Add a pair of loppers to cut larger branches. For tight spots, it’s hard to beat a folding pruning saw.

No matter what tools you choose, keep them sharp and clean.

Leave to the pros – licensed tree experts or certified arborists – the pruning of large trees or work that involves climbing or cutting near power lines.   

Good pruning cuts are smooth with no ragged edges. They’re made at an angle about 1/8 to ¼-inch beyond a bud or connecting branch, so that water runs away from the cut.  

Don’t use pruning sealants which encourage disease and slow healing. Clean cuts heal themselves.

Never remove more than a third of a tree or shrub in any one year. Tackle neglected plants over several years to bring them up to snuff.  

Now you’re ready to start pruning.  

First, picture the ideal shape of your tree. You generally want a strong central leader and branches that go up and out. Keep that picture in mind as you prune. 

Next, ask yourself some questions to guide your pruning cuts.

Are there any dead or broken branches? Remove them. 

Do any branches cross? Get rid of one of the crossing branches to avoid damage from rubbing.

Are there areas where many branches are close together? Thin some out to improve air circulation and discourage disease. 

Are some branches distorted, malformed, or growing toward the trunk? Get them gone. 

Are skinny branches growing straight up from the main branches? Snip off these water sprouts.

Are branches growing from the base of the tree? Cut off these suckers. 

Do some branches have tight, narrow connections to the trunk? Remove some. Strong branches come out at wide angles and resist breakage.

Remove branches with narrow crotches (left) to lessen the chance of breakage. Photo: University of Maryland Extension 

Stop, stand back, and look at your tree or shrub often as you prune. Armed with all sorts of cutting tools, it’s easy to get carried away. And yes, I know this from experience.

Does every tree or shrub need to be pruned? No. Do most benefit from it? Yes. Are there different pruning styles for different types of plants? Yes. Fruit trees, grapevines, flowering shrubs, and evergreens all have unique needs. 

Your best pruning tool is a good book or reference sheet like this one: Pruning Trees in the Home Landscape

Don’t let pruning intimidate you. Do your research. Arm yourself with good tools. Take your time. And step back often to evaluate what you’ve done. Before you know it, you’ll be a pruning pro. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Winter Pruning with Andrew Ristvey – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Although it may be cold and dreary outside, it’s the perfect time to take inventory of your deciduous trees and shrubs to see which plants would benefit the most from pruning. In this month’s episode, we’re sitting down with Extension Specialist in Commercial Horticulture, Dr. Andrew Ristvey. Dr. Ristvey is giving us the ins and outs on winter pruning. 

We also have our: 

  • Bug of the Month  (Winter Stoneflies) at 37:30
  • Garden Tips of the Month at 45:55
  • Native Plant of the Month ( American holly)  at   49:00

Here are some great resources to learn more about pruning: 

 If you have any garden-related questions please email us at or look us up on Facebook.

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County). Theme Song:  By Jason Inc

Save the date! On March 9, join together with fellow University of Maryland alumni, faculty and staff, students, and volunteers for an extraordinary day of giving back. Make a contribution to Home and Garden Information Center Fund for #GivingDayUMD!

The Garden Thyme Podcast – February 2021

Garden Thyme podcast player

Hello Listener,

The long cold days of winter are upon us and even though we might like to dig in and hibernate, there’s still plenty of things to do in the garden. In this month’s episode we chatted about winter pruning, adding plants for winter interest, and the “language of flowers”!

Listen to podcast


  • The Language of Flowers at ~2:10
  • Winter Pruning at ~8:10
  • Plants for winter interest ~16:45
  • Native Plant of the Month (River Birch) at ~21:30
  • Bug of the Month (EarWigs) at ~24:45
  • Garden Tips of the Month at ~29:00


A Guide to Successful Pruning, Shrub Pruning Calendar

A Quick Guide to Pruning Roses


We hope you enjoyed this month’s episode and will tune in next month for more garden tips. 

  1.  If you have any garden related questions please email us at or look us up on Facebook at
  1. For more information about UME and these topics, please check out the UME Home and Garden Information Center website at

The Garden Thyme Podcast is a monthly podcast where we help you get down and dirty in your garden, with timely gardening tips, information about native plants, and more! The Garden Hoes Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County). The University of Maryland is an Equal Opportunity Employer and Equal Access Programs. We want to remind everyone that we are open to all audiences, and will continue to serve our communities.

November Tips and Tasks

  • Prune dormant shade trees that need to be pruned. Begin by removing all dead, diseased branches, and making any necessary cosmetic cuts. Do not cut branches flush with the trunk. Leave the branch collar (swollen area on the trunk of a tree or a larger branch) but do not leave a stub. 

improperly pruned tree
Incorrect pruning and over mulching

  • Topping (photo above) is the not the correct pruning technique to help control the size of a tree. Crown reduction, pruning entire branches at their point of origin, is recommended if a tree must be reduced in size. 

several rows of brown eggs on a tree trunk
Spotted lanternfly eggs. Photo: Lawrence Barringer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture,

  • Be on the lookout for spotted lanternfly adults and egg masses. Report any finds to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
  • Mulch your perennials after the first hard freeze. This helps to protect them from frost heaving caused by the freezing and thawing of soil.  Mulch helps moderate temperature fluctuations, reducing this problem.