150 Tips: Early Spring Pruning

Pruning has been a perennial topic in hort society publication over the years. Tips abound, but one of the most frequently given tips is to prune fruit trees in spring. The ideal time for pruning fruit trees is when they are still dormant in late winter or early spring.

Prune for young trees for shape. In 1922, Burgess Nightinglale of the University of Minnesota explained the two reasons for pruning. First, young trees should be pruned to the shape you want. Have a mental vision of how you want the tree to look when you are done, Burgess suggested. If you are not sure about removing a branch, bend it down to see how the tree looks without it. Then cut, if you want.

Correct a tree’s shape with pruning. The classic rules of pruning are to first remove branches that are the “three Ds.” That is, dead, diseased or damaged branches. For fruit trees, Burgess recommended allowing a central leader branch to grow and identifying it in the first year after the tree was planted. Then, create a second scaffold of side branches and remove branches that are too low on the tree or any that have weak crotches. Once your tree has a good form, pruning will largely consist of removing crossing branches, cutting out diseased or injured branches and removing water spouts (stray branches that grow from the tree base).

Pruning should enhance a tree’s shape not remake it. This is a tip from T.S. Weir, who explains in the April 1957 magazine that the purpose of pruning is to not remake but rather enhance the tree’s natural form.  He writes, “Old oaks frequently develop a characteristic gnarled appearance. They are not pretty and graceful in the same sense that a birch is; but they have their own kind of beauty in a strong, sturdy look. Such features should not be tampered with.

Hydrangeas need a spring pruning, too. In 2019, horticulturist Debbie Lonnee praised tree-form hydrangeas as a landscape plant. The key maintenance for them is pruning, she noted. Pruning is the main difference. Panicle hydrangeas bloom on new wood, so they can be pruned as dormant plants in March, April or early May. You will need to be diligent, especially with a newly planted tree, in the first years to maintain that round shape. You can cut the stems back 25 to 50 percent (don’t be shy!), and stand back as you prune to watch that you are maintaining a round shape.

Prune grapes to only the strongest canes. In the 1920s, grapes were becoming popular in Minnesota for jams and fresh eating. Minnesota Horticulturist readers were advised to prune grapes heavily—only a few of the strongest canes should be left to bar fruit. Leaving too much fruiting wood reduces the size of the bunches.



  1. JEANNE GEHRMAN on March 19, 2022 at 1:48 pm

    Could the font possibly be any smaller on the above drawings? Gotta love it when the computer genius is in charge.

    • Mary Lahr Schier on March 19, 2022 at 7:13 pm

      I’m sorry you had trouble reading the graphic, which was taken from an older publication. We have sized it up, which I hope makes the type more readable.

  2. Janet Scott on March 22, 2022 at 1:21 am

    Old fashioned or “Snow ball” hydrangeas should be pruned in spring, correct? Now-vernal equinox would be a good time?

  3. Linda Serrano on April 1, 2022 at 1:02 am

    I have been advised to cut our orange barked dogwood back to 12”. However, one of the articles in the newsletter said to cut some of the big branches down to the base. Which should I do?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on April 1, 2022 at 10:00 pm

      Dogwoods are very forgiving and can take a variety of pruning approaches. With red-twig dogwood, I took big branches down to the base to allow new branches to grow. I think some people leave the branches a little higher, but that might make for weaker new growth. The main purpose in cutting branches not all the way to the base is just to encourage more new growth that is more colorful than older stems.

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