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How to Trim Back Shrubs

By S.F. Heron ; Updated September 21, 2017
Forsythia shrub

Trimming back shrubs or pruning is a type of regular maintenance required for these durable plants in the home landscape. Shrubs typically form the anchor plantings of a landscape. As a result, these plants need proper care to retain their beautiful form, shape and flowers. Learning how to trim back shrubs involves careful planning for each individual shrub. The time of trimming, shape of the plant and natural growing tendency of the plant should be considered. Each plant has different pruning requirements so make sure you're familiar with each plants' blooming schedule before attempting to trim back each shrub.

How to Trim Back Shrubs

Consider when the plant blooms. Spring flowering shrubs should be cut back immediately after the plant finishes blooming. Plants that bloom in later in the year should be trimmed back in late spring. Don't prune in late summer during the hottest months or in the fall.

Decide how much trimming the shrub needs. Heading involves cutting back a length of branch to a healthy bud. Thinning requires the removal of an entire branch to the parent (main) trunk or stem. Heading works well on those plants that have been trimmed on a yearly basis. Thinning can be used to shape the plant or control growth. Thinning also works well to encourage additional flowering.

Locate any areas of the shrub that contain dead branches, leaves or damaged branches. Clip these first as close as possible to the main trunk of the plant at a 45-degree angle. Use pruning shears for branches smaller than 3/4 inches around or lopping clippers for larger 2-inch wide branches. Use a pruning saw for major branch removal.

Trim back any gangly branches to a healthy bud. Make the cut at a 45-degree angle to limit the width of the wound to the branch. Cut just slightly above the healthy bud to encourage new growth. On branches with buds on each side, trim off one bud to prevent twin branches from forming. Limiting this growth prevents weakened joints on the shrubs.

Remove older wood branches in a uniform pattern throughout the shrub to thin the plant. Removing old wood encourages new growth. Cuts should be made where branches join the parent stem or another major branch intersection. Avoid leaving stubs when trimming. Aim for cuts as flush with the adjoined branch as possible.


Things You Will Need

  • Lopping clippers
  • Pruning shears
  • Pruning saw