It’s a good time to prune your forsythia bush. Bring any branches you trimmed inside, and in a few weeks enjoy the lovely blossoms. EQRoy/Shutterstock

Depending on the kind of winter we are having, I prune our trees and shrubs sometime between Groundhog Day and St. Patrick’s Day. It’s my holiday tradition.

The timing is partly for my psychological well-being but mostly for the good of the trees. There isn’t much other gardening work to do this time of year, and I enjoy getting outside, walking over the property and getting my hands dirty. The timing is good for the plants, too, even the evergreens, because they are dormant from now until the end of March.

If you miss this window, put off pruning until at least July. From April to June, trees and shrubs put their energy into growing new branches, leaves and flowers. Having to heal the wounds from pruning cuts while actively growing would be stressful for them.

I choose days that are dry and not too cold, checking the extended weather forecast to make sure no big drop in temperature is predicted for a few weeks. Even though they’re dormant, the trees need to heal, and the process is hindered if the temperature goes below zero degrees.

Because it has been a warm and mostly snow-free winter (again), I started pruning in early February this year. I’ve mostly worked on trees close to the house that had grown so much they were rubbing against the siding. That is good for neither the plants nor the house.

Atwell prepares to prune crowded and crossing branches from his quince shrub. Courtesy of Tom Atwell

Some gardeners worry about pruning, but the rules are fairly simple.


Always cut out any dead branches first.

Never cut more than a third of the living branches. Cutting any more can really stress the shrub.

Always cut at the point where the branch you want to remove grows out from the main trunk, a stem or another branch. Usually, but not always, the branch you remove will be the smaller of the two. In other words, don’t simply cut the tips off the ends of the branches. You are not cutting hair.

If two branches are rubbing against each other, one should be removed. Branches that cross other branches should also be removed because they may start to rub, which will damage them. Crossing branches usually start on the outside edge of a tree or shrub and head toward the middle.

One final recommendation: Always stop pruning one branch sooner than you think you should. Too many times in my younger years, I made the last cut and immediately realized I’d left a gap where I didn’t want one. Cutting out one-third of the branches is the maximum, not the required amount. Sometimes you can remove just a single large branch or trunk from the middle of a shrub and, bingo, you’re done.

I’ve said this to my wife, Nancy, so often that she now often says it to me first: If we decide a branch should have been cut, we can always do it later. But if we cut it and decide we shouldn’t have, we can’t put it back.


The rhododendron and quince branches are inside the Atwell home, set in their vases. Now the waiting for blossoms begins. Photo by Tom Atwell

Earlier this month, we pruned our rhododendrons and quince. They are both spring bloomers, so we saved the branches. We’re now encouraging them to blossom in the spring-like warmth of our home. This practice is sometimes called “forcing” branches, but I read somewhere that, really, we aren’t forcing the branches to do anything. We’re allowing them to reach their natural beauty, just a bit earlier than they would have outside.

To force a branch, cut an X shape in the bottom of the branch and put it in the vase half full of warm water. If you pruned on a warm, sunny day and you set the vase in a sunny window inside, it will speed the process. Change the water every few days and sit back to watch the branch develop.

The first leaves showed up on the quince a couple of days after we brought the branches inside, and we hope to have flowers soon. Rhododendrons, of course, are evergreens, but the flower buds had already formed when we cut the branches and are swelling nicely.

In past years, we’ve done this same treatment with lilacs, pussy willows, serviceberries (Amelanchier) and dogwoods. Magnolia, forsythia, apples and cherries also bloom beautifully indoors. Wander around your own yard to see what needs pruning and remember to bring the branches inside for a hopeful jump on spring. 

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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