Pruning trees and shrubs

Pruning trees and shrubs
(Source: Texas A&M AgriLife)

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - The questions started a couple of weeks ago.

“Is it time to prune back my ___________?”

These nicer fall days certainly get me out in the landscape more, even as the days get shorter. Eager to do something and with the grass has almost completely stopped growing with cool temps, seems as though many folks think to go cut some branches!

If you are itching to start now, I’d encourage you to wait a little longer. These last waning days of autumn still give our perennial plants time to store up reserves in their roots. This storage of energy allows them to emerge strongly in the coming spring.

Of course, any dead or diseased branches should be removed immediately, regardless of the month.

In general, the dead of winter is a great time to cut back on most trees and shrubs. They are in their dormant stage and can take it quite well.

Typically, I encourage folks to wait until after the holidays have passed before you do any serious pruning. Serious pruning can be defined as cutting back more than one third of a plant.

Caretakers of the SFA arboretum taught me that you can typically cut back perennials by a third anytime during the growing season so long as you do not do so during time so great duress – such as in the middle of a drought. Many blooming plants will often re-bloom wonderfully with a light topping throughout the summer.

Winter pruning of most shrubs such as roses can be done anytime during the winter according to a regionally known horticulturalist, Felder Rushing. In Rushing’s excellent book, Tough Plants for Southern Gardens, he says there are really no rules across the board for pruning roses. He says to forget any specific rules you may have heard over the years and simply cut back all the stems of repeat blooming varieties by half!

Regarding landscape trees, let me first share some wisdom that I heard many years ago from renowned Dallas horticulturalist, Neil Sperry, “no plant absolutely has to be pruned.” A plant will grow naturally so long as it has water, sunlight and nutrients.

We choose to prune back trees and shrubs because a branch is in the way or because we simply desire a certain shape or perhaps more blooms.

So, what about the crepe myrtle?

I written about this before so let me discuss this carefully. Crepe myrtles are beautiful plants that can be categorized as large shrubs or small trees. Many standard varieties can reach 20 feet, 25 feet or even 30 feet tall. If you desire a smaller variety, there are dwarf types that grow only to four feet and even miniatures that stop at one to two feet in height.

I wouldn’t dare cut back the decades old crepe myrtles on our farm. I do keep the lower limbs trimmed up so we can mow under them. Additionally, the Natchez crepe myrtles that I planted four years ago do need shaping and kept from rubbing the eves of our house.

I generally let them develop their natural form.

Fruit trees certainly will produce larger fruit if pruned later this winter. Unlike the roses, these fruit bearing trees do have some guidelines that you would do well to follow. I’ll never forget the first time a commercial peach producer showed me how many lateral limbs he wanted, then how many buds he would allow per limb. His efforts were quite laborious and quite profitable.

But for now, get ready for the holidays. Put off major pruning. And give yourself (and your landscape) until January before you cut them back.


Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is .

Educational programs of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, national origin, genetic information or veteran status. The Texas A&M University System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the County Commissioners Courts of Texas Cooperating.