With the year already well into September, the days are getting shorter, the weather is changing and fall is quickly approaching — which can leave some homeowners wondering “should I prune my yard in preparation for fall, and if so, which plants and how much?” This guide will help you understand what and when to prune, so that you can have the healthiest plants possible throughout the upcoming fall and winter.
The Essential Guide to Fall Pruning for Beginners
What Tools You Will Need
Start by gathering the equipment that you’ll need for fall pruning. Begin with pruning shears, an incredibly versatile tool that most gardeners use for basic pruning jobs. They are handheld and can cut branches up to ¾ inch thick, which means they can be used in most situations involving shrubs. Loppers are great for thicker branches while hedge shears can be particularly helpful for large hedges, and pruning saws are reserved for incredibly thick stems and branches. You can also use a pole pruner to get to those hard-to-reach pieces of dead wood in trees.
Identifying Your Plants
When it comes to pruning in the fall, a simple cursory glance can help you determine which plants need to be pruned and which don’t. Any dead branches — not leaves, since those are a natural part of autumn — should be removed to allow the plant to grow new shoots and expand outward. Autumn is actually a great time to do so because it’s easier to see the dead parts before the entire limb becomes bare, at which point everything about the plant looks dead.
You should wait to prune most spring-flowering plants until after they have flowered later in the next year, mainly because they might already have buds for winter or spring flowers. Flowering shrubs such as camellias shouldn’t be pruned in the fall for this reason, as these plants will need their full growth to survive the winter and then produce flowers in the spring.
In the fall, it’s not yet time to prune summer-blooming plants – that task should be left to late winter or early spring. Most plants that flower in the summer do so on the growth they’ve made that year, so the more time you give your plants to grow after pruning, the more flowers they’re likely to have for a bigger and brighter display the next year.
Pruning hedges is a bad idea in autumn, generally because shrubs with lots of foliage (like barberry and burning bush) won’t be able to harden off their new growth in time to survive the winter. To give post-pruning growth the best chance, wait to cut back shrubs until the winter when the plant will be dormant, so that the branches can start growing again when spring sets in.
Evergreens generally should not be pruned in the fall, since you’ll want to prune them just before new growth starts in the spring. Another option is to prune in mid-summer while the plants are semi-dormant. The one exception is pine, which should be pruned as new growth appears in the spring.
Roses can be pruned in the spring or fall, which ensures that you’ll have the best plants possible for summer blooms. When pruning in the fall, you’ll want to start by shearing the dead canes, which will appear brown, at their bases; then, once they’re all removed, move on to the green canes. In the fall, you should prune them to about knee-high (they would be cut shorter for the spring).
There are a few exceptions to the general pruning rules described above. Though most summer-blooming plants would be pruned in late winter or early spring, this doesn’t apply to hydrangeas, because they can either bloom on “old wood” and have buds ready for next spring by the fall (which means you won’t want to prune until after the spring bloom), or they bloom on “new wood” like the summer-blooming plants described above. Depending on what type of hydrangea you have, you’ll know whether to bloom in late winter or late spring.
As a general rule, you should try to follow the branching pattern of the plant to keep its natural shape as much as possible. Move one branch at a time rather than shearing whenever possible, because shearing tends to make the plants look out of place and unnatural (unless you’re shearing hedges).
Fall pruning is discouraged for a lot of plants, but can also be essential in some cases — which means that you’ll want to make sure you approach the process extremely carefully, or risk missing out on blooms the next year. Consider hiring professionals to take care of your pruning for you, so you can sit back and enjoy your garden — even in the fall.
For more information on pruning, check out our article “A Complete Guide to Pruning Roses, Trees and Shrubs”.