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How to Prune, Trim and Shape Your Shrubs

Proper trimming techniques will keep shrubs and hedges healthy and liven up your landscape. Here's what you need to know.

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When to Prune

Snowball Bush.

The best time to prune depends upon the plant.

  • Trim early-spring-flowering shrubs right after they bloom.
  • Summer-flowering plants should be clipped in winter or early spring.
  • For non-flowering plants, trim after new growth has completely formed.

You can do light trimming throughout the year.

Good to Know

Pruning directs growth, allows light and air to reach the plant and removes the excess weight of damaged and diseased branches.

General Shrub Pruning

Step 1

Before you start, lay a tarp down to make cleanup easier.

Step 2

Thinning a Shrub with Hand Pruners.

Remove growth you don't want, then thin out spots of thick outer cover. The inner limbs need air and sunlight, so cut back along the branch just above new growth or at the plant base — avoid electric trimmers for this. Trimmers just top the shrub, encouraging new growth near the cut. Cutting farther back will encourage growth along the limb.

Good to Know

Remove suckers — small branches that grow at the base of the trunk — and watersprouts — small limbs that grow vertically on dominant branches. Both take nutrients away from the desirable portion of the plant.

Step 3

Cutting Branches at the Base of the Shrub.

Remove any dead limbs near the base. If possible, avoid making the top of the shrub wider than the base — you want sunlight to reach the entire plant. Cut only about 1/3 of the shrub each year. The holes you're creating will fill in with new growth, making the plant fuller and stronger.

Formal Shrub Trimming

Overgrown Boxwoods.

Bushes such as boxwoods can be shaped for a more formal look. First, do some general trimming as described above.

Step 1

Stakes and Strings Set Up to Guide Shrub Trimming.

To cut straight lines, you can use your house, siding or other objects as a guide. Some pros use stakes and strings as guides. Set them up along the hedges but don't set them too deep into the cover. Use a level to position the strings if you really want perfection.

Step 2

Trimming the Top of Boxwoods with a Hedge Trimmer.

Slowly run a hedge trimmer along the top and sides, letting the blade do the work. Again, keep the base wider than the top. Step back every once in a while to check your work.

Hedge and Shrub Trimming Tips

Trimming the Top of a Tall Hedge.
  • A hedge trimmer with extended reach and a pivoting cutting head simplifies trimming tall hedges and shrubs as well as hard-to-reach areas of the plant. Some string trimmers accept hedge trimmer attachments with this functionality.
  • When pruning mature, overgrown shrubs, remove the thickest branches first. Cut them back to the base of the shrub to promote new growth.
  • Hand pruners are useful for smaller branches. Some can handle diameters up to an inch, but long-handled loppers give you leverage to cut branches 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Read Lowe's Garden Tools Buying Guide to learn more about hand-pruning tools.
  • Cut with the branch deep in the jaws of the pruner or lopper. This technique gives you greater force to make the cut. Cut as cleanly as possible to promote quicker healing.
  • If your area receives regular snows, consider creating a rounded top on your hedges and shrubs to reduce heavy snow accumulation.