When to Prune Trees & Shrubs

We’re often asked when to prune trees or shrubs in the MetroWest area. While it’s usually safe to assume that your woody plants can be pruned in winter, the more accurate answer is “It depends.” The right time to prune a tree or shrub varies depending on its species, age, and condition, among other factors. Knowing when to prune is as important as knowing what and how to prune trees.

When to Prune Trees: Key Takeaways

  • Winter is an ideal time for pruning most trees and woody shrubs because they are dormant, making it easier to see their structure and avoid disrupting new growth. Wounds from pruning can also start healing faster in spring.
  • Early spring-flowering trees and shrubs like dogwood, forsythia, and lilac should be pruned right after they finish blooming to avoid removing next year’s flower buds.
  • While not ideal for major pruning, summer allows selective pruning to improve shape, control growth, increase air flow, and remove dead/damaged branches when trees are fully leafed out.
  • Fall pruning is generally not recommended, as any new growth stimulated will be killed off by winter, wasting the plant’s energy reserves.
  • Pruning should be done minimally and properly to maintain the plant’s health, shape, and vigor. Hiring a professional tree service ensures the job is done correctly.

Use the “Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light” System to Know When to Prune in Massachusetts

Trimming your tree at the wrong time is one of the worst pruning mistakes you can make for your trees. Mistiming the pruning schedule can put your tree under unnecessary stress, open it up to attacks from pests and diseases, and even kill your tree.

For each season, we’ll provide our view on pruning. With a green light, you can feel free to safely and properly prune most trees or shrubs on your property if they need a trim. The yellow light will indicate that it’s okay to do pruning in that season but be cautious in how you proceed. And when you see a red light, avoid almost all pruning to avoid damaging your trees.

WARNING: Tree trimming is as much a science as an art. Failure to properly trim your tree can do more harm than good. When in doubt, hire a professional tree pruning service to handle the job.

American Climbers tree trimming team pruning trees in winter near Holliston, MA.

🟢 Winter is the Best Time to Prune Trees in MA

We’re giving you the green light to take care of your trimming needs when it gets cold.

Believe it or not, winter is an ideal time to prune nearly all trees and woody shrubs. In fact, some tree services, such as pruning fruit trees to maximize fruit production, should only be done while trees are dormant during winter. Yes, it may be cold out but, as the Norwegians say, there’s “no bad weather, only bad clothes,” so bundle up!

Trees and shrubs, like hibernating animals, respond to winter’s colder temperatures and short hours of sunlight by slowing their activity to a crawl. Also like animals, trees have spent the summer storing up energy reserves. When freezing temperatures and short days arrive, both dormant trees and hibernating animals rely on those energy reserves to get them through the cold months of winter until spring re-awakens them.

Benefits of Winter Pruning

Because dormant shrubs and trees are “asleep,” winter pruning has some important benefits, including these:

  • It won’t disturb their growth patterns or stimulate new leaf growth.
  • Without leaves, it’s easier to see the structure of the tree so the proper pruning cuts can more easily be made.
  • The usual insect pests and diseases are not active during winter, so pruning cuts won’t provide entryways for them to attack your trees.
  • The pruning cuts you make during dormancy will start to be sealed off as soon as the tree awakens in spring, so the wound has a head start on keeping out destructive pests and diseases.
  • Any hazards can be quickly seen and removed before they can compromise the safety of your property and loved ones (especially when we get heavy snow or ice loads from winter storms).

WARNING – While winter tree pruning has many benefits, reputable tree service companies don’t work when winter conditions are hazardous to people or trees. When temperatures drop dangerously low, when heavy snow collects in trees, or when ice loads develop in trees and atop roads, our pruning experts won’t work. We’ll wait till conditions are safer for you, your property, and our crews.

🟡 Spring Pruning is Right For Some Trees

We give you a yellow light to trim in the spring. You can do it, just be sure it is with caution and that you prune the right trees.

There are some shrubs and trees that you shouldn’t prune in winter, and these are early spring-flowering species. After they finish flowering, these early bloomers set buds for the following year’s flowering. This means they flower on what’s called “old” wood (growth that developed during the previous growing season).

Early spring-blooming plants finish their flowering and fruiting cycle in the middle of the growing season and then set to work making next spring’s buds. Because of this, the University of Massachusetts Extension recommends pruning them just after they finish flowering. The goal is to prune before the tree makes buds for next year so you can control the shape and size of the plant and maximize its future flowering. If you prune off branches during the winter or later in the growing season, you’ll be pruning off all those future flower buds.

Examples of spring-flowering species that you prune during the spring growing season include:

  • Dogwood (Cornus)
  • Forsythia
  • Witch hazel (Hamamalis)
  • Rhododendron
  • Spring-flowering trees like maple and flowering cherry (Malus, Prunus)
  • Lilac (Syringa)

Remember how welcome the early blooms of forsythia and witch hazel are when all around so many trees and shrubs are bare, and the weather is still too cold to enjoy spending time in your garden? To ensure that you get those early flowers, prune them just after they’ve finished their show.

🟡 Prune Selectively and Carefully in Summer

We also put up the yellow light for summer pruning. There are many practical reasons to do it, but you must be careful about the type of pruning work being done and how much is being cut off.

While summer isn’t the time to do major pruning, it is the right time to do certain types of pruning as long as you follow best practices.

If you’re a novice pruner, you might want to wait until you’re very familiar with the plants in your garden and you’ve watched the results of your pruning over a few annual cycles. You’ll be better equipped to know how much to prune. Alternatively, you can trust a professional tree service to handle your tree and shrub trimming.

Benefits of Summer Tree Trimming

There are many reasons to prune in summer, such as:

  • Improving the tree’s overall shape when it’s fully leafed out so you can better see the impact of your pruning efforts
  • Controlling summer growth on trees or shrubs that have grown too large or are getting in the way
  • Removing water sprouts from fruit trees
  • Opening up tree crowns to increase sunlight and air circulation throughout the interior
  • Raising the tree canopy to open up a view
  • Removing dead, damaged, or diseased leaves and branches from among healthy foliage

Until trees have fully leafed out, some underlying issues are not obvious or cannot be seen, while other problems occur as the tree continues to grow. And, of course, dead, damaged, or diseased branches and trees should always be removed when you first notice them, regardless of the time of year.

PRO TIP: One of the dangers of pruning during the growing season is the increased risk of pathogens or pests entering through open pruning wounds. If your trees are actively infested with insects, or if Dutch elm disease or oak wilt is present, talk to a tree care professional before doing any pruning.

An American Climbers employee in a bucket truck amongst trees.

🔴 Avoid Most Tree Pruning in Fall

We’re putting up the red light and telling you to stop and put the pruners away when fall arrives.

Fall is the one season that’s not good for pruning. Except for removing damaged or diseased branches, don’t prune trees and woody shrubs in autumn.

Fall pruning, like all pruning, stimulates growth, but new fall growth will shortly be killed by the dropping temperatures that usher in winter. With winter approaching, this short-lived fall growth will end up being useless to the tree or shrub, and precious stored energy reserves will have been depleted to make this doomed foliage.

Less is More When It Comes to Pruning Your MetroWest, Massachusetts Trees

Now that you have an overview of the best times to prune trees, remember this other important pruning rule: all pruning should be minimal, removing only what is required. One of the benefits of regular pruning throughout a shrub’s or tree’s life is that you remove the fewest number of branches and foliage each time you prune it. That way, pruning can be done with an eye to the overall shape and vigor of the plant.

For pruning, more is not better. And while some people who hire tree care professionals may think that a lot of pruning and a lot of debris means they got their money’s worth, knowledgeable homeowners know they can trust reputable tree service companies to do exactly what’s needed – and nothing more.

Need a Hand? Call American Climbers!

Knowing when to prune will keep your trees healthier, more structurally sound, and looking beautiful, but it’s only half of the equation. There are numerous pruning mistakes you can make that will damage your trees and leave them in a worse state than you found them. A professional tree service will do the job right.

If you’re looking for a trustworthy and experienced tree trimming company, look no further than American Climbers! We’ll be happy to evaluate your trees and shrubs, and explain exactly what type of pruning they need and the best time to prune them. So if the thought of being outside in winter’s cold or wielding a pruning saw while perched in a tree is less than appealing, give us a call at 508-497-8628 or request a quote online today.

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