The Ashridge Nurseries Blog

Winter pruning: Don't cut corners...


Winter pruning

Clean up those secateurs for a decent
bit of winter pruning

To non-gardeners it may not be obvious, but autumn can be one of the busiest times of year in the garden, and pruning is one of the most important tasks of the season.

There are many trees and shrubs that need pruning or renovating in their dormant period if they are to avoid stress and recover before growth begins again in spring.

Left unpruned, deciduous trees and shrubs can become leggy and unattractive, with soft and top fruit becoming unproductive and susceptible to disease.

When carrying out your pruning it is really important to use clean sharp tools that will not leave any jagged edges that could prove an easy entry for infection.

Top Fruits and Soft Fruits

Fruit trees such as apple and pear grown as standards or bushes need to be pruned at this time of year. (But do NOT prune any fruit that has a stone as opposed to pips - so leave those cherries and plums alone).

Begin by removing any dead, diseased or crossing wood. Keep the centre of the tree open by removing larger branches if it becomes too congested.

You can reduce the length of any branches that have grown too big by cutting them back to a good strong lower branch, but it is important to make sure that this branch is at least a third of the diameter of the one you are removing.

The next step depends on whether your trees are spur-bearers or tip bearers.

Ashmead Kernel apple spurs

Ashmead Kernel apples in July,
ripening on their spurs

Spur-bearing apples include Ashmeads Kernel and James Grieve, pears include Conference and Doyenne du Comice. These trees should have the previous year's growth cut back by about a third. Any young side shoots that you do not want to grow into full branches can be cut back to 5 or 6 buds. Remove any spur systems that have become overcrowded.

Tip bearing apples include Blenheim Orange and Worcester Pearmain, whilst tip bearing pears are much less common. All the previous year's growth is pruned back to within one bud, with side shoots ­less than 30cm left unpruned. If the trees become congested cut back some older fruited wood to a new bud or young shoot.

Elsewhere in the fruit garden many of the soft fruit varieties can do with a little attention.

Mature blackcurrant bushes need around a third of the oldest wood to be removed on an annual basis, with any dead or low-lying branches being removed altogether.

Gooseberry bushes require a little pruning in summer and again in winter. They too should have any dead or low-lying growth removed. All leading stems should be cut back by half, with side shoots - which in summer are pruned back to around five leaves - being pruned to two or three buds.

Summer fruiting raspberries fruit on year old canes. Varieties include Glen Magna and Cascade Delight. This means that all brown, fruited canes can be cut down to soil level. The new lush green canes can then be thinned to leave around 10cm between each one and tied into supports.


Rose pruning is also an essential task at this time of year.

Danse de Feu climbing rose

The striking red-bloomed Danse de Feu
climbing rose needs a yearly tidy-up

Climbing roses such as Constance Spry or Danse du Feu require a routine annual prune. This involves removing any dead and diseased wood and tying in new shoots to replace it. The flowered side shoots are then cut back to a third of their length.

Rambling roses such as Albertine or Rambling Rector also require attention. Dead or diseased branches are removed and new shoots can be tied into place. Prune side shoots back to around two thirds. If the plant gets too congested you can cut out the oldest growth to encourage new shoots from the base, which can then be tied into place.

Hybrid Teas and Floribundas that grow to over 3ft such as Isn't She Lovely and Fascination benefit from having growth cut back by around a third at this time of year. This helps to prevent damage to their shallow root system from wind rock.

Ornamental Trees

This is the perfect time to prune many deciduous ornamental trees.

Young walnut tree

Be careful not to prune deciduous trees
that are likely to bleed, like this young
walnut – wait until next summer

Exceptions to this rule are Horse Chestnuts, Birches, Walnuts and Cherries, which all bleed profusely and need to be pruned in mid-summer after the season's growth has matured.

Varieties of Prunus that are susceptible to Silver Leaf should also be left alone, and instead pruned in spring when they are in growth to avoid allowing the infection in.

Heavy work on large trees involving ladders and chainsaws is best left to the professionals! But removing smaller limbs and pruning younger trees with loppers and a good sharp pruning saw is within the capabilities of most.

As with any pruning, the first objective is to remove any dead or diseased wood, as well as any congested or crossing branches that could be rubbing against one another causing damage.

Next, take a step back and review the shape and form of the tree. Any branches growing at odd angles can be removed, along with any shoots growing from the base. All suckers growing up from the roots should be removed as they can starve the tree of water and nutrients and ruin the appearance of lawns and flower beds.

When cutting smaller branches it is important to cut to a quarter of an inch above a strong outward facing bud. This is to avoid the stump dying back and rot and infection entering.

When removing larger branches make an undercut around 30cm away from the trunk, followed by the overcut. This will remove the weighty branch and prevent it snapping and tearing the bark. Then you can remove the stub neatly, angling the cut away from the trunk so that the rain runs off effectively.

Ornamental Shrubs

As a rule, shrubs are pruned after flowering. After a vigorous summer's growth, most deciduous shrubs benefit from a light clipping to keep them bushy and shapely and avoid them becoming too large for their situation. This can be done with shears and loppers for thicker branches.

However if a shrub does get out of hand, then this is the perfect time to cut them back hard to rejuvenate them and stimulate new growth next season.

Not all shrubs respond well to drastic pruning, but some common examples of those that do are varieties of Berberis, Ribes and Philadelphus.

All branches can be cut back to around 20cm from the ground, or to lower branches around 45cm from the ground. This will encourage new shoots, and by the following year, normal formative clipping can resume.

For staggered regeneration, a third of the oldest growth can be cut right down to ground level, which will encourage new shoots from the base. Carry out the same procedure for the following two years until you are left with a plant that looks as good as new.

Both of these procedures need to be followed by a good mulch in spring.

So now the question arises of what to do with all those prunings and clippings?!

Green fleshy shoots can be shredded or cut up small by hand and are a great addition to the compost heap. Larger woody branches can be shredded and turned into woodchip to be used along pathways, or better still under established hedges as a brilliant free mulch which will help to retain nutrients and moisture.

All the largest branches and anything that is diseased can be burned on a bonfire – a satisfying seasonal job to warm yourself up at the end of a chilly days work!


4 thoughts on “Winter pruning: Don't cut corners...”

  • george

    hi, i planted two apple trees in my garden at the beginning of this season.
    i am very much a novice and i dont know where to begin pruning my trees i had one apple of the trees?
    i dont know how old they are either
    ant help would be much appriciated

  • Gareth

    Hi George,
    It would help to know the age of the trees but we've got two videos that could be helpful.
    If it's two years old: Pruning a two year old tree
    or if it's bigger than the one in the video: Pruning a three year old fruit tree

    If you want us to guesstimate the age then feel free to send a photo to and we'll see what we can do.

  • Iain

    Hi, I planted a mixed, native hedge last winter of Blackthorn, Dog Rose, Wild Cherry, Field Maple, Hazel, with the customary Hawthorn. My question is, does one reduce all the first year's growth of these shrubs as one does with Hawthorn? I couldn't find the answer to this question on your wonderfully informative website. Many Thanks!

    • julian

      Yes, absolutely - reduce this year's growth on all native hedging plants by 50%.

      Apologies for the delay in replying - I plead a bad case of flu and Christmas....


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