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Pruning Shrubs, Part 2 - When is the Best Time to Prune?

Learn about when to prune your shrubs.  Read Part 1

Pruning Demystified - Download PDF

Contributors: Stacey Hirvela

Pruning your plant at the proper time is the keystone for success. If you prune a flowering shrub at the wrong time of the year, you will probably miss out on that plant’s blooms for that season. While this isn’t the end of the world and the plant will recover to flower again the following year, it is definitely disappointing. The risk of missing out on a season’s worth of flowering is probably the main reason most people fear pruning their shrubs.  The good news is that pruning shrubs at the wrong time of year almost never harms the plant itself.

To determine when to prune a plant without interrupting its bloom cycle, you need to know if your shrub flowers on new wood or on old wood. These two terms get thrown around a lot, but are rarely explained in simple terms. Here’s what they mean:

Flowering on new wood means that a plant does not create flower buds until after growth begins in spring. The new growth – or rather, the new wood – the shrub creates that season will be responsible for developing the flower buds that will open later that year. Plants that flower on new wood typically flower later in the growing season. Some examples of plants that flower on new wood include roses, rose of Sharon, panicle hydrangea, and butterfly bush (photo 'Miss Molly,' at left.)

Flowering on old wood means that a plant forms the flower buds for next year’s blooms during the current year. The buds are carried through winter on last year’s growth – the old wood. After these plants bloom, they begin forming the flower buds for the following year. Plants that flower on old wood typically flower early in the growing season. There is, however, one very important exception to this, and that is bigleaf hydrangea like the Cityline series or the Let’s Dance series. These flower in mid to late summer on old wood. Some additional examples of plants that flower on old wood include forsythia (photo Show Off®, below right) lilac, and weigela.

Spring is the time to do most of your pruning, but the question is, which part of spring? Plants that flower on new wood can be pruned in early spring, just as the new growth begins. This leaves them plenty of time to recover from pruning and still create flower buds that will bloom that season. The ideal time to do this is after the buds have emerged on the stems, but before they expand. At this point, you can see where the healthy new growth is located, and pruning before the buds leaf out means that the plant doesn’t waste energy on buds you’ll just be cutting off anyway.

Plants that flower on old wood can be pruned immediately after they finish flowering. If you prune before they flower, you’ll remove the flower buds. If you wait too long after they’ve finished blooming, they may not have enough time to create flower buds for next year.

We offer a number of reblooming plants, like Bloomerang® lilac, Sonic Bloom weigela, and Bloom-A-Thon® azalea. Reblooming plants are capable of flowering on both old and new wood, so the best time to prune them is immediately after their first wave of bloom, which occurs on the old wood. This allows you to enjoy their spring display and gives them plenty of time to put on new growth for their rebloom. All they require is a light trim after their first bloom to put on new growth, but if you forget to do this, no worries- you’ll still enjoy a great second show!

When you have dead or damaged wood on a shrub, it can be removed any time. Just be absolutely sure it is dead before doing so! It is sometimes tempting, especially in early spring, to look at a plant and assume it is dead or needs to be cut back, but it’s best to put your pruners down and wait to see if any buds emerge. Wood that is damaged can be removed any time too, as can growth that hinders free passage on walkways or makes it difficult to access an area of your yard. When it comes to safety, all of the other pruning guidelines are secondary.

Remember, shrubs do not necessarily require pruning to flower and perform well. If you’re not sure what to do, or you were happy with the plant’s size and performance last year, go ahead and skip the pruning.

Now you know the principles behind the right time to prune shrubs, so let’s talk about what, exactly, you’ll be doing when you prune.  If you missed Part 1, How to Prune, click here.

Patent Info:  'Miss Molly' Buddleia PPAF Can. PP: 4446; Show Off® Forsythia x intermedia 'Mindor' PP: 19321;

374 Readers Rated This: 12345 (3.3)
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 11/09/2018 - 10:16am

Two years ago my yard guy didn’t prune my hosta and leaves froze. In the spring, it came back but frozen leaves were on top of new growth. Last November I insisted he prune and the following spring it was beautiful. Well here we are November and it has just gotten real cold and snowed (Michigan). Can he still prune? Just sign me Frustrated in Michigan

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 11/15/2018 - 2:02pm

Hostas can be cut back in either the fall or spring. Fall is probably preferred as the debris will be removed and taken away so that no insects or diseases could become a problem through the winter. These can be cut back now, definitely.
Thank you for the inquiry!
Barbara Balgoyen
Walters Gardens, Inc.
Proud Supplier of Proven Winners® Perennials

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 05/24/2018 - 12:58pm

I have 2 azalea bushes that need shaped. When is a good time to trim them. I also have a young red maple tree that has a lot of lower branches and wonder if i should time it.

Sarah Geoghegan's picture
Sarah Geoghegan Thu, 08/02/2018 - 3:18pm

If you have our Bloom-A-Thon Reblooming Azaleas, give them a light, all-over trim when their spring bloom fades. This encourages new growth, which is what will be responsible for producing the flower buds for the rebloom.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 08/16/2017 - 10:50pm

I was just given a Little Lime Panicle Hydrangea and as it is my first Panicle, I would like to know when and how much to cut it back each year. Do I cut back the entire plant to within a few inches of the ground? Thanks

Sarah Geoghegan's picture
Sarah Geoghegan Thu, 08/17/2017 - 1:39pm

Little limes should be pruned in late winter/early spring. They only need to be cleaned up a little when pruning, you shouldn't take them to the ground. You could also apply a controlled release fertilizer in early spring.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 07/04/2017 - 12:32pm

Having problems with my hostas. Many of them were big and beautiful, but now have dwindled down to nothing. Can something be eating the roots? That is what it seems if so, how do I revive them?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 07/17/2017 - 12:22pm

Would you be able to possibly dig up a clump and photograph it and send us a picture? It is so much easier to help you if we know more about your plant problems.
Thank you for your inquiry, have a great day!
Barb Balgoyen
Walters Gardens, Inc.
Proud Supplier of Proven Winners® Perennials

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 03/14/2017 - 5:21pm

George from Texas
I have nandenias and texas sage on my property and wanted to find out the best time to prune so as not to damage them Thank you. (not sure on the spelling, so ...)

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Wed, 03/15/2017 - 9:16am

You should prune Texas sage in late winter, so it may already be too late for that. You can give them a light trimming now if you don't mind losing some of the flowers. But otherwise, save severe pruning for next year before the new growth begins. Nandina should also be pruned in late winter, so you may have missed the ideal window for this one as well. Here's some more detailed instructions on how to do that: 

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 10/05/2016 - 4:45pm

Hi, I'm a moron. I have bushes on my property and I do not know what they are called or if they bloom on new wood or old wood. I need to cut each back about a third. One is starting to flop over under its own weight. When is the safest time to do this? It is early October now and I had though fall was best but now I'm just confused.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Fri, 10/07/2016 - 2:23pm

Hi there - you are not a moron! From a plant health point of view, there's no reason that you couldn't prune them now. The only real risk is that if they bloom on old wood, you'll be removing the flowers by cutting them in fall - but you won't be harming them in any way. If you'd like to send us photos, we'd be glad to identify them for you - contact us here: and select "shrubs" as the category. We'll reply to you with an email you can send them to and would be happy to give you more specific advice based on your situation.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/28/2016 - 11:25am

I am wondering when is the best time to prune my Itea Henry's Garnet. May is almost over I haven't seen any signs of blooms.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 05/31/2016 - 1:44pm

Itea usually blooms a bit later in the season - not sure where you are located, but here in Michigan, it's typically late June, so I don't think you have anything to be concerned about just yet. If you want to prune an itea, the best time to do so is immediately after it blooms.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 09/28/2015 - 5:53am

Should you prune knock out roses in the fall if at all? Also, we have about 100 arborvitae trees surrounding our property.
We live in the northeast and winters are sometimes brutal. They are well established at this point. Is there a need
to tighten up the ends so that snow/ice do not lay on the branches. We did trim them last year. Thinking we can wait another year to do the same?

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 09/29/2015 - 12:32pm

I would recommend waiting until spring to prune your roses. You want to wait until you see the new growth beginning to emerge on the stems - that's your cue it's time to prune. As for trimming your arborvitae, it's really up to you. If you have found that trimming them helps minimize snow load damage, then I would recommend doing it again. However, I have never heard of trimming as a way to avoid snow damage, so I'm not sure that it would be effective.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 09/13/2014 - 2:45pm

In central OH, zone 5b/6a, I have a forsythia bush in a too crowded place. I know to transplant it during the dormant time, so how much to prune it back allowing new growth next year. Next year's blossoms are not an issue, more importantly the year after. KJ in OH

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Mon, 09/15/2014 - 1:50pm

You can move your forsythia now if you'd like. However, for the best flowering in 2016 and beyond, the only time you should ever prune forsythia is after it finishes flowering for the season.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 11/15/2013 - 8:32am

I have two burning bushes that have been in for seven years, never pruined. When will be the best time, I live in northern michigan. I am burlapping them this weekend and was wondering if I could cut them back a little, cover them with burlap and then do a bigger pruning in the spring?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 05/14/2014 - 11:18pm

Live in the Northeast and prune my overgrown BB in early spring to shape it and then again before the snow in late fall. Enjoy the green in the spring and orange red leaves in the fall. Morning to early afternoon sun.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 04/23/2014 - 9:19pm

I always use hedge trimmers on mine late spring after they get really full. Shape them nice, it will last all summer with the exception of just a few scraggelers that need trimmed off. Then same thing again in the fall.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 06/30/2013 - 4:40pm

Hi - I believe these are the bushes I have. they have really overgrown this year with our beautiful sun and rain. They look ununiformed now. But, I am afraid it I trim back all the red (cinnamon) will go away and they will be all green - boring.
If I trim back now will more red growth appear?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/25/2013 - 10:15pm

When should one prune Smoke Bush?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 06/11/2013 - 6:39pm

I have a velvet cloak. I prune mine early spring at the first sign of leafing.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/21/2013 - 11:00am

I live in VA and would like this series to be presented earlier next year. I'm doing much or our pruning of shrubs that have just finished blooming today. Thanks. J. Johnson

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Wed, 04/24/2013 - 3:19pm

Sorry we missed pruning time in your zone! You can bookmark this page for future reference, and it will be right here next year when you need it.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/20/2013 - 3:01pm

That is great news to learn. After all these years I never knew that, although my wife probably does, since she does the pruning. Thanks for that good information. Ralph Adams

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 04/20/2013 - 6:00am

I am so glad to find out when to trim my Forsythia! Thank you for this very timely message!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 04/19/2013 - 9:42pm

When the best time to prune cedar hedges? Can you do them spring and fall?

Robbie preston

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Wed, 04/24/2013 - 3:20pm

The best time to prune evergreen hedges is usually late spring/early summer, after the new growth has emerged and had a chance to grow a little bit, but before the hot weather sets in.

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