A practical guide to winter pruning

A practical guide to winter pruning

Winter is the time to prune plants that dropped their leaves in the autumn. Find out how, with practical advice from our partners, Amateur Gardening.

Most deciduous ornamental trees and shrubs* are pruned while dormant between October and February, after their autumn leaf fall. This should only be done where necessary, and promotes vigorous new growth next year.

This means cutting out dead, damaged or diseased limbs; cutting back growth where a plant has outgrown its space; pruning to reinvigorate a shrub; or pruning for a particular effect such as pollarding (cutting it back to a stump to encourage the growth of lots of vigorous new stems, which often improves the quality of foliage on ornamental plants).

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What to prune

Prune summer- and autumn-flowering shrubs such as hardy hibiscus, hydrangea and clerodendrum in the autumn and winter. Vigorous new growth from spring will carry the following summer’s flowers. 

Prune spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia and flowering currants immediately after they have flowered in spring.

How to prune

Tools you need include sharp, clean secateurs for thin branches, long-handled loppers to cut branches up to 3/4in (2cm) thick, and a suitable pruning saw for thicker branches. Gloves and eye protection are also a good idea.

First, check over the plant and cut out dead, damaged or diseased stems. Cut back into healthy, living tissue (which will be white or pale green inside). Cut back to 1/4in (1cm) above a bud – preferably facing away from the plant, which is the direction you want a new shoot to grow (pictured).

Then, once all the unhealthy stems are removed, stand back and assess the shape of the plant. If more stems need to be removed to reduce the size of the plant, try to cut out whole stems back to where they join another stem or the trunk. If you cut stems part of the way down (tip pruning) the plant will often produce multiple stems the next growing season and this may spoil the natural look of the plant. 

Sometimes tip pruning is necessary to tidy small shrubs. If so, cut with care and keep the shape of the plant balanced all round.

Multiple-stemmed shrubs such as philadelphus and deutzia should have up to a quarter of older stems cut right to the ground every couple of years, to promote vigorous new stems that will carry more flowers.

Cutting thicker branches

When cutting off thick, heavy branches use a good pruning saw. First, make a cut underneath the branch about a foot from where it joins the trunk (pictured). Now cut down on to the undercut from above to remove the branch. This method avoids the wood splitting. Now cut off the 1ft stub close to the trunk, but leave a slight collar (the curved bit between branch and trunk) as this will help the wound to heal. It is unnecessary to seal winter pruning wounds.

After removing large branches, step back and reassess the shape of the plant. Prune to balance the growth if necessary.

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Shrubs to cut right back

Some shrubs including buddleja, cotinus, Cornus alba and some hydrangeas should be ‘pollarded’ – all stems are cut back every year close to the trunk, which is also cut back to just a couple of feet tall. This is done in late winter just as buds break. Cut the stems back hard to a healthy, opening bud. This will contain the size of the shrub and produce vigorous new stems the following spring.

Pruning roses

Shrub roses: Reduce these (pictured) in height by about a third in the autumn after leaf fall, to reduce wind rock. Follow this in late winter/early spring with further pruning by about a third, to leave vigorous stems to produce new stem growth and flowers. Always cut back to just above a healthy looking bud.
Climbing roses: In late winter cut side shoots from the main framework of stems back to three buds from the main stem.
Rambling roses: In winter cut out older stems to ground level, leaving vigorous younger stems to flower next summer.

Which plants not to prune in winter

*There are three ornamental deciduous trees/shrubs that should be pruned in summer (early June) to avoid silver leaf disease: ornamental cherry, Laburnum and hawthorns. In all cases, prune them sparingly, and only if essential. Seal the cuts with wound paint. 

Also, these tips don't apply to fruit trees and shrubs, which should be pruned differently. Watch out for our guide to this in the new year – or join our club and you'll receive our monthly newsletter with all our new articles.