When to Prune Garden Fruit trees, Flowering Shrubs and Perennials

After my last post, Time for a Tidy in the Spring Garden and Plant Nursery, there were a couple of questions about when to prune different plants in the garden, so I thought I would mull that over with you a little. It’s a big topic so we probably need to sit down in our garden chairs and get some cocoa and a wool shawl for this conversation (here in Sonoma County, California, it’s still a bit nippy outside). Maybe we’ll see some bluebirds flying overhead and forget about information and all mental notes for a minute or two and fall softly into silence. [happy sigh]

Don’t Psych Yourself Out About Pruning

OK, that was a nice pause. Now … about pruning. I’m guessing that pruning can be really daunting even to many experienced gardeners and probably more so for beginning gardeners. It’s one of those enormous topics that you are always learning more about. There are so many variables and bits of info, like if and when to prune various plants or different types of the same plant, how to prune, different styles of pruning, pruning tools, sterilizing and sharpening your tools, and your climate zone. Obviously, “All-Things-Pruning” is a book-sized topic and this is just a little blog post, so let’s just touch lightly on the question of when to prune.

Nectarine blossoms -- exquisite! Worth it whether they fruit or not.
Nectarine blossoms — exquisite! Worth growing them whether they fruit or not.

There is expert information out there about pruning, which I recommend. The only drawback to detailed, expert pruning information is that it can be really overwhelming. I know it often is for me. For example, whenever I read about raspberries and whether they are summer-bearing or ever-bearing, and the different times and ways to prune and train them — my brain starts to fuzz over. But it would be a shame to give up on growing them since they are fairly easy to grow (at least here) and you’ll probably get some berries even if you mess up a bit.

Happily, or perhaps haphazardly, I like to learn by doing (to some extent). Do I make mistakes? Yes! Will everything I say here be correct? I don’t know. It’s just what I currently do. Gardening cultivates observation and attunement, and perhaps that imparts a slight intuitive sense of what to do as well?

Sometimes Pruning Advice Changes

Your observation and intuition may come in handy because, as with most things, pruning advice sometimes alters over the years, and you may have an inkling to follow some suggestions, and disregard others. Take deciduous fruit trees — the traditional advice was to prune deciduous fruit trees in winter, when they are dormant. But in more recent years, some say to prune certain fruit trees in summer instead.

Because pruning can be so confusing to me as well, I’ve created a cheat sheet for myself to help me remember when to prune the plants we have growing here. Please do more research before pruning anything valuable! Use this as just a jumping off place to wrap your head around when to prune certain plants, or as amusement for those of you who know much more than me. 😉

Winter Dormant Pruning

I prune most of our deciduous fruit trees in winter, mostly in January. At that point, they’ve usually had some freezing weather and are fully dormant. Dormant pruning is easier because you can see the branches, of course. A basic instruction I’ve gleaned is that pruning in winter stimulates growth whereas pruning in summer suppresses it. I don’t know if that is still considered accurate. I can’t list all of our plants on this page, but here are some of the plants on my list for winter dormant pruning:

  • Clematis*
  • Nectarines
  • Cherries
  • Raspberries
  • Hazelnuts
  • Roses
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Wisteria
  • Persimmons
  • Sometimes I also give the buddleias a trim in winter
  • Mulberry (my sense is to prune mulberries as little as possible or not at all; and I think I read that somewhere else too. Ah yes, here it is: Pruning & Training book says they bleed copiously, even from their roots!)
Jackmanii clematis is a luscious dark purple

*Clematis: I refer you to this article from Fine Gardening for relatively easy-to-understand pruning advice for clematis. Scroll down to the part beginning, “Simplifying the mystery around clematis pruning…” But if even that is scary to take in, definitely try clematis anyway! I have often neglected mine entirely, or pruned all of them to a foot from the ground one year and nothing the next. I find them remarkably forgiving, hardy and satisfying plants despite how delicate they seem. My favorite remains the common Jackmanii which is purple and generous with blooms; prune it in winter.

Perennials: I usually leave most perennials and ornamental grasses untrimmed until late winter/early spring. This means they are a bit messy over the winter, but it also may help provide habitat for small creatures.

I usually leave perennials like hyssop until late spring before pruning back last years dead stalks.
Late Spring Pruning

Quiz: if you could live in your dream house, would it be a brand new modern house or a historic house resonating with nostalgia? Well, think of it similarly with flowering shrubs. Some flowers like a bit of yesteryear in their twig, others like fresh new growth. (Oh jeez. I must be working into the wee hours again.)

But that quiz might help you to remember the difference between plants that flower on “new wood” vs “old wood”. Many favorite garden shrubs bloom on what is called “old wood”. This means that the flowers form on stems that grew last year. So when you are pruning all the other deciduous plants in winter, remember to skip the following until after they are done blooming. I mean, skimming the list below does rather seem like a Who’s Who of quaint old cottage flowers, and I can imagine them living in tidy Victorian houses with ornate mouldings.

Pruning these after flowering works out nicely anyway, because many of these plants produce flowers that we all like to cut for bouquets anyway, like lilacs. So, whatever you didn’t collect for a bouquet could be pruned right after blooming is finished. Again: avoid pruning this group in winter, as you’ll be removing the flowers’ favorite bloom spot for the year. This group includes: (list is mostly from Purdue Uni site here):

Lilacs — an enduring favorite, despite having to gopher-protect them
  • Flowering Almond, Cherry, & Plum
  • Akebia
  • Beautybush
  • Chokeberry
  • Cotoneaster
  • Deutzia
  • Forsythia
  • Fringetree
  • Hardenbergia
  • Honeysuckle*
  • Jasmine
  • Lilac
  • Mockorange
  • Flowering Quince
  • Rhododendron (and azalea)
  • Passiflora
  • Spirea
  • Viburnum
  • Weigela

Hydrangeas — some bloom on new wood, some on old wood, and one type blooms on both! I refer you to this article for hydrangeas to see which type you have and how to proceed — click here.

*Honeysuckle — Western Gardens says thin after blooming, and for old straggling plants, cut to the ground before spring growth begins to regenerate.

Summer pruning

Most fruit and deciduous trees are pruned while dormant in winter. However, in more recent years, some advise pruning certain fruit trees in summer. Here in Sonoma County, winter is also the rainy season, and some of our fruit trees get attacked by diseases. The wet weather doesn’t seem like a good time to be leaving open cuts on those trees, and I’m experimenting with pruning some fruit trees, like cherries, in the summer now. I would love to hear any other gardeners experiences with this.

Plants for summer pruning:

  • Cherries
  • Apricots (and pluots, plumcots…etc)
  • Plums
  • Walnuts
  • Espaliered fruit trees — normally need both winter and summer pruning to maintain structure.
  • Citrus
  • Lavender — most varieties: prune substantially (but not down to bare wood) after it is done blooming. For pruning Lavandula stoechas, sometimes called Spanish or French lavender (the kind with the flower bracts that look like bunny ears), I refer you to this article.
Late Autumn or Early Winter
  • Pittosporum
  • Escallonia
  • Arbutus
  • Cistus (rockrose) prune only lightly or remove a few stems at a time– it doesn’t do well with heavy pruning
Orchid Rock Rose | Cistus purpureus

Goodness! That was a long chat about pruning and now I’m out of cocoa. Please share your garden pruning tidbits — and favorite cocoa brand! I’m really picky about cocoa and want to try a new one. 🙂 Happy Gardening!

See Resources page for my two most common reference books for pruning: Sunset Western Garden Book and Pruning & Training by Brickell and Joyce.

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8 thoughts on “When to Prune Garden Fruit trees, Flowering Shrubs and Perennials

    1. Would love to see photos of your akebia when it flowers! I think mine is in too much shade. It flowers but I don’t think it’s thriving. Trying to troubleshoot what it wants. Aways great to hear from you and I love reading your blog!

  1. Such a useful and easy to follow pruning guide, one to bookmark! I like your analogy with old/new houses and old/new wood. I pretty much follow what you do. I’ve been recently getting in a tizz about how to prune redcurrants vs blackcurrants, and had to watch several youtube videos to get it straight in my head! Sometimes watching a visual guide is very helpful.

    1. Oh good, glad you liked that… when I re-read it, I thought I might be nuts. 🙂 If you include your red and blackcurrant pruning findings in a blog post, I’ll link it from mine to yours. Yes, good reminder about watching visuals for pruning!

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