Pruning Guidelines for Shade Trees, Fruit Trees and Shrubs

Extension resources explain pruning basics

February 14, 2023, 10:39 am | Jeffery Iles

AMES, Iowa – While removing stems and branches may seem intimidating at first, pruning a plant is a great way to invest in its long-term health. Removing dead or crowded limbs can improve a tree or shrub’s visual appeal, encourage fruit production and help to ensure a long, productive life.

For many shade and fruit trees in Iowa, late winter and early spring are ideal times to prune. This year, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulture specialists have compiled a variety of materials discussing the basics of pruning woody plants.

Pruning a tree.One of the resources highlighted by the guide is the “Principles of Pruning” video series, available through the Integrated Pest Management YouTube Channel. In this series, Jeff Iles, professor and chair in the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University, discusses when, why and how to prune a tree.

“I like to prune during the dormant season, because the leaves are gone, I can see the plant’s architecture, and when the tree begins to grow in the spring, the wounds created during pruning will begin to close rather quickly,” said Iles.

Another article included in the guide discusses the proper time to prune various types of woody trees and shrubs, including oaks, fruit trees, shrubs and roses. For most deciduous trees, February through March is the best time to prune in Iowa. Oaks should be pruned slightly earlier, between December and February, to prevent Oak Wilt, a potential lethal fungal disease. Fruit trees should be pruned in late February through early April, and deciduous shrubs should be pruned in February and March. Because many species of rose can suffer dieback due to Iowa’s frigid winters, gardeners should remove any dead wood in March or Early April.

Also included within the guide is an article from the Horticulture and Home Pest News Website that covers basic pruning equipment, including hand pruners, shears, saws and chainsaws. Hand pruners or shears can be used for plant material up to ¾ inch in diameter, and lopping shears are best for branches between ¾ and 1 ½ inches. For larger material, a pruning or pole saw can be used.

While chainsaws can also be used to remove large branches, they can be incredibly dangerous to those who are not trained or experienced in using them and should be primarily left to professional arborists.

To access these and other pruning resources, visit

Shareable photo: Pruning a tree.

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