Skip to main content

How to properly prune your trees in winter for healthy growth year-round

What you need to know about pruning your trees this winter

winter pruning guide for trees and shrubs woman apple
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When it comes to plant care, winter is when most plants go dormant, so it’s mostly safe to assume that your gardening chores should be done, right? Well, not quite. Winter is the ideal time to prune trees and shrubs so they can refocus their energy into productive growth in the spring.

It can also help reduce stress on your trees. However, it still needs to be done carefully, as improper pruning can have unintended consequences. Don't worry, we'll explain everything you need to know about how to prune trees for the winter.




1 hour

What You Need

  • Pruning shears, loppers, or saw

  • Ladder (optional)

  • Hard hat

  • Goggles

Person pruning a tree
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why is it a good idea to prune trees during winter?

Late fall or late winter is the best time to prune trees and shrubs to give them structure and remove unwanted twigs. It all boils down to the fact that this gives them time to heal right before they push out new growth during the spring. Since trees are dormant during wintertime, they experience less stress when you cut them.

Removing diseased and unwanted branches will help the tree redirect its energy towards growing healthy leaves. There’s also a matter of safety; a low-growing branch could pose a threat to cars or pedestrians. On your end, you’ll be able to see the tree more clearly because there are fewer leaves on the tree in the winter.

Other seasons aren’t ideal for pruning. If you decide to clip back your tree during late spring or summer, you could slow down the growth of your tree since you’ll be taking away the leaves, which convert sunlight into energy for the plant. Keep in mind that the right time to prune also depends on a case-by-case basis — some trees might prefer different times of year for pruning.

The best trees for pruning during winter are evergreens and shade trees. You might want to hold back on snipping spring-flowering plants until after they bloom, and you should only start trimming pine during the spring months.

Pruning an apple tree
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What conditions do you want when you prune trees in the winter?

Ideally, the best condition for pruning a tree is when it’s a dry, mild day. You don’t want to cut your tree on a wet winter day because that could introduce fungus and rot to your exposed branches. You also don’t want to prune when it gets too cold, as your tree might not harden before the cold sets in. It’s best to keep off pruning for late winter or early spring when the temperatures are milder.

man and woman pruning an apple tree
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What to remove when you prune trees

The purpose of pruning is to encourage more vigorous growth and remove debris and unwanted parts.

Step 1: Remove lower and smaller branches to improve how much sun and airflow your tree receives.

Step 2: Get rid of any damaged or diseased wood.

Step 3: Avoid the urge to over-prune, especially if you’re working with a smaller sapling.

It’s a good rule of thumb to remove no more than 2% of your tree branches. Don’t overdo the pruning; you still want to maintain the general structure of your tree. It’ll be easy to tell where to cut deciduous trees, as all of their leaves fall off during the winter.

Pruning a shrub
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How do you prune trees in the winter?

Here’s a step-by-step guide to strategizing your pruning routine this winter.

Step 1: Pick out a clean and sharp pair of shears to start the pruning process.

You could also use a tree saw or a pair of loppers if you’re working with a large tree. For safety, consider grabbing goggles and a hard hat. If your tree is tall, it might help to bring along a ladder, too — but definitely avoid using a saw while on a ladder.

Step 2: Assess if there are any damaged or diseased branches that you want to cut.

Step 3: Consider how you want to shape your tree and where you need to make cuts.

It’s best to make big cuts instead of small ones to avoid over-stressing your tree with too many snips. Take note of branches growing in the wrong direction, whether that’s into each other, downwards, or into the tree. You also don’t want too many branches inhibiting the plant’s growth by covering the crown.

Step 4: Cut at nodes where branches attach to each other.

Try not to cut too far or close to a bud — cut right above the bud with a clean, 45-degree diagonal angle. If you snip too far from a node, it may form a stub. If you cut too close, you might gouge into the tree and permanently damage it. Eyeball about a quarter-inch away from a node when you make your cut.

Pruning a tree with loppers
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What could happen if you prune incorrectly during winter?

Pruning during the winter certainly comes with benefits, but there are a few risks. Here are things that you want to avoid while cutting back your tree.

  • Pruning during wet weather. You could introduce rot and fungus to your tree, which would effectively weaken it.
  • Pruning too close to the bud. You could gouge inwards at your tree. This could make it more vulnerable to pests and pathogens that could harm it.
  • Pruning too far away from the bud. You could leave an awkward stub.
  • Pruning when it’s too cold. Your tree might not harden before the cold gets to it with frost damage.

Pruning your tree or shrub during winter is the best time to help usher in vigorous spring growth. It takes some timing, assessment, and hard work to get it done, but you’ll be on your way to a strong tree with strategic cuts. If your tree needs a haircut, go ahead and get those pruning shears out when you’re experiencing a mild winter day!

Stacey Nguyen
Stacey's work has appeared on sites such as POPSUGAR, HelloGiggles, Buzzfeed, The Balance, TripSavvy, and more. When she's…
7 fantastic types of pine trees you can grow in your yard
Add one of these pines to your yard
Small pine tree

Pine trees are a great way to keep a winter garden looking lively, but they’re beautiful in any season. Pine trees are great for providing windbreaks, offering winter food and shelter for birds, adding a pleasant smell to your yard or garden, and just looking nice! Not all types of pine trees are ideal for every yard or purpose, though. If you want to add a pine tree to your home but aren’t sure where to start, this guide to fantastic types of pine trees will help you make your choice.
Eastern white pine

Eastern white pines are one of the most common types of pine trees planted across the U.S., making them familiar and easily accessible. They’re often grown as Christmas trees or planted as windbreaks, but they’re just as lovely growing on their own in a yard or garden. You can even find dwarf varieties that can grow in containers.

Read more
How to plant morning glories for a stunning display in your garden
Your guide to vibrant, healthy blooms
Morning glory on trellis

Morning glories are wonderful climbing plants that certainly live up to their name. Whether you prefer a more classic blue and purple variety or want to try a daring scarlet or black, these flowers are easy to grow, even for gardeners who are just beginning their growing journey. If you’re intrigued by morning glories and want to try your hand at growing them, then you’re in the right place. In this handy guide, we’ll lay out everything you need to know about how to plant morning glory flowers and how to care for them.
Benefits of growing morning glory flowers

If you've been thinking about growing morning glories, you don't need to think twice if you live in the appropriate climate zone and have just the right conditions for them to thrive. They come in gorgeous colors—most notably a lovely lavender blue color. As their name suggests, they open up during early morning, then close up a few hours later.

Read more
Does vinegar kill weeds? How to use your favorite household cleaning product in your garden
Everything you need to know about using vinegar to tackle unwanted weeds
Glass bottle labeled vinegar on table

Whether you're a seasoned or novice gardener, there's a good chance that you've heard about using vinegar as a weed killer. Since many gardeners are interested in using natural alternatives to harsh commercial herbicides, vinegar has become a go-to for removing pesky weeds. But does vinegar kill weeds effectively? Is it really the miracle weed killer that DIY enthusiasts make it out to be? Vinegar can, in fact, help with weed management, but it has both pros and cons as a natural herbicide. Here's what you need to know about using vinegar in the garden.
What makes vinegar an effective weed killer?

Vinegar is essentially a solution of acetic acid with water — the vinegar that you buy at the grocery store is typically 5% acetic acid and 95% water. Acetic acid kills plants by damaging their cells. Upon contact with acetic acid, cell walls break down, which leaks plant fluid and dries out plants. You want to be careful about applying vinegar to your landscape, since it will likely kill any plant tissue upon contact, including foliage that you're actively growing.
How do you create a DIY vinegar weed killer?

Read more