Late Winter Pruning Time for Shrubs and Trees

Published on March 02, 2017

It's been an odd winter for our region. Very little snow and some days that felt more like May than February.

Still, spring doesn't arrive officially for a few weeks and we can expect some last blasts of cold weather between now and then.Pruner 15 inch

So take advantage of late winter for some late-winter pruning.

It's the ideal time of the season to use your pruning tools to improve the health and growing habits of your woody plants. The effort will make your gardening easier later in the year.

The process starts with clean, working, safe tools.  Basic maintenance is essential, especially on power equipment like chainsaws and hedge trimmers. Don't be afraid to get help from a professional.

Late winter pruning is part of an overall plant health regimen, managing not only a plant's size but also training its growth and encouraging renewed bloom and fruit production. Pruning also decreases the chance of insect or disease infestation in warm weather.

Know your plants


For best results, know your plants and when they bloom.  You can prune dead, diseased, dying and storm-damaged wood any time of year, but the optimal timing of size reduction and shaping for healthy plants does vary.

If you have plants that bloom after May, flower buds will be formed on this year's new growth.  Examples of such plants include crape myrtle, cotoneaster, St. John's wort, abelia, clethra, Rose of Sharon and most woody plants not grown for their flowers.  These plants should be cut now, in late winter, before growth starts in the spring.

If you have woody plants that bloom before June, their flower buds were actually formed last year.  Examples:  azaleas, forsythia, kerria, lilac, flowering almond and most fruit and ornamental flowering trees. Prune after they bloom and not after July, when flower development for next year is initiated.

Don't forget: Dispose of the trimmings in your Arlington green bin or paper yard bags. The organic contents are collected once a week along with your trash and recycling. Composting could be a great option too.

Some valuable guidelines



  • When reducing the overall size of a shrub, stagger your cuts throughout to optimize new growth at different levels.

  • Never remove more than a third of a plant in any one season; the leaves manufacture food.

  • Always cut back to just above a side shoot or a bud pointing in the direction that you want your plant to grow; pruning stimulates new growth.

  • Prune crowded and overlapping growth from the center of a plant to improve air circulation. Try to remove branches that are crossing or rubbing each other.

  • Prune to optimize exposure to light; hedges should be wider at the base than at the top.

  • When working with extended pole saws, don't stand directly beneath the branch to be cut.

  • Prune with both feet on the ground and hold power tools with both hands.

  • Root pruning can be done in preparation for moving a plant or to put a plant in a smaller space.

  • Reduce the need for pruning by practicing "Right Plant, Right Place" - Choose plants that tolerate your soil, light conditions and space limits.


Free green-thumb inspiration around Arlington


A full list of pruning and woody plant maintenance publications can be found on the Virginia Cooperative Extension website.

Visit the Virginia Cooperative Extension's Horticulture Help Desk weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon at the Fairlington Community Center 3308 S. Stafford St.  The desk offers free flower and vegetable seeds and soil testing forms and containers.

The Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation stewards Arlington County's natural and historical resources. County nature centers provide visitors with hands-on educational opportunities to understand and appreciate our natural resources.

Arlington Public Library hosts a wide variety of garden talks and programs during warmer months plus a handy garden tool lending collection at Central Library. "The Shed" is open March to November to residents and property owners with a library card.

Special thanks to Kirsten Ann Conrad of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Agriculture and Natural Resources.