How to Trim Trees & Bushes


Pruning is a required, but rarely-understood, practice for managing a landscape. Trees and bushes are woody ornamental plants that require pruning to maintain their shape, aesthetically pleasing appearance and structure. Proper pruning enhances a tree or bush, while improper pruning can kill the plant at worst and reduce its beauty and potential in your landscape at best. Always prune your woody plants with an eye toward selectively maintaining their natural shape rather than shearing them to create an artificial form.

Step 1

Sharpen your tools before you prune a tree or shrub to avoid injuring the plant. You can have your tools professionally sharpened at a lawn or garden center, or you can sharpen them yourself by drawing a whetstone down the length of the blade. Always point the blades away from you and wear leather gloves when sharpening your tools.

Step 2

Mix a solution containing one part bleach and nine parts water. Saturate a cloth rag with this solution. Sterilize your tools by swiping the blades with the rag in between branch removal to avoid the spread of diseases.

Step 3

Time your pruning for late fall or early spring while trees and bushes are dormant. Dormant bushes will not exude sap which attracts harmful insects. Dormant bushes will also recover from the shock of pruning faster and will be heather than bushes pruned in the spring.

Step 4

Plan out your entire pruning process for a single tree or shrub before you begin to prune a tree or shrub. By planning out which branches you will remove before you make your first cut, you avoid inadvertently removing the wrong branch.

Step 5

Remove dead, diseased or damaged growth first. Damaged growth includes broken limbs and partially broken limbs that can fall and cause injury. Diseased growth should be completely removed to prevent the spread of diseases to other parts of the tree. Signs of diseases include residue and discoloration on branches caused by powdery mildew or sooty mold. Limbs affected by diseases may also have drooping, discolored or dropping leaves. Cut these limbs back to a strong lateral branch or shoot.

Step 6

Make training cuts to help the plant develop a desired shape by cutting back lateral branches to the central leader. Never remove a branch that destroys the plant's natural shape.

Step 7

Prune your tree to eliminate weak forking growth or a less desirable central leader when the plant develops a double leader.

Step 8

Remove any new trees growing from the trunk of your tree or the tree's roots. This new growth is called sucker growth. Sucker growth will rob an established tree of nutrients.

Tips and Warnings

  • Never remove more than 1/3 of the plant's total growth in a pruning session. Never plan to prune a plant more than once every three months. If you cannot completely prune a tree to your satisfaction in a single session, plan a session in late fall and then a second session in early spring. Avoid pruning trees that touch power lines. Doing so can be hazardous. Instead, have this work done by a professional tree trimmer.

Things You'll Need

  • Clipping shears
  • Pruning saw
  • Branch lopper
  • Sharpening tool
  • Bleach
  • Cloth rag


  • United States Department of Agriculture: How to Prune Trees
  • University of Minnesota Extension: Pruning Trees and Shrubs
  • Texas A&M Extension: Follow Proper Pruning Techniques

Who Can Help

  • NC State University: Pruning Trees and Shrubs
Keywords: pruning landscaping shrubs, heading back shrubbery, trimming tree limbs

About this Author

Tracy S. Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published two novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World."