11 Tips For Pruning Your Plants After a Winter Freeze

Did your plants endure a cold winter freeze this season? If so, you may have questions around when and how to prune. In this article, gardening expert Jill Drago shares her top tips for pruning plants after a hard winter freeze.

Pruning plants after winter freeze


A garden dusted with snow can be just as beautiful as a garden in full bloom in the summertime. That is of course until the heavy snow and freezing temperatures wreak havoc on your beautiful plants.

Winter and frost damage can look different depending on where you live and what kind of plants you are growing in your garden. The symptoms could include burned and discolored leaves, frozen and destroyed flower and leaf buds, as well as broken branches.

Keep reading to learn some tips to clean your plants up after a harsh winter freeze.

Wait Until Spring

Close-up of snow-covered bushes in the garden against a blurred background. The bushes have thin dark brown branches covered with small green and orange oval leaves. The branches are covered with snow.
Delay pruning damaged plants until the leaves begin to open and temperatures begin to heat up.

I can understand how tempting it may be to get out into your garden after some heavy snow snaps some branches, or after a deep freeze. I am here to tell you to wait.

It is recommended to wait to do any pruning on damaged plants until you can truly assess the damage that has been done. Allowing the plant to leaf out will give you a better idea of what needs to be removed.

It is important to allow the plants to warm up and return to their normal selves as well. This will promote proper healing and will prevent any further damage from occurring.

Of course, if there are branches in the way of day-to-day life or limbs that could be hazardous you should take care of those right away.

Identify Damage

Walnut leaves after frost. Close-up of dry frozen leaves in black color, oval shape with pointed tips against the backdrop of a blurry spring garden.
After severe winter frosts, plant branches may be broken, and the foliage may start to turn brown.

Many different types of damage can occur after a deep winter freeze or under the weight of snow.

The first would be broken branches. This can be disappointing because it can ruin the beauty of your plant, and sometimes it can even cause plant death. The breakage of branches could be as minimal as a few twigs snapping off, to entire branches snapping and dividing the plant.

You may also see leaves that have darkened and become droopy. Flower buds can also become damaged by extremely cold temperatures.

Both of these types of damage are not lethal to your plant, but you may have to sacrifice a season of beautiful blooms while your plants recover.

Dead vs. Damaged

Close-up of male hands conducting a scratch test on a branch of a bush in a spring garden. A man scrapes off the top layer of bark from a branch with a sharp knife to see what is underneath. The bare section of the branch has a pale green tint, which indicates that there is no frost damage on the bush.
Do a scratch test to determine if your plant is healthy.

It can be very scary to see your plant covered with dark or discolored leaves. If you have pruned your plants too late in the summer or fall, the new growth may not have had enough time to harden off and could be more susceptible to frost damage.

These leaves will likely drop from the plant once they have thawed in the spring. Many plants will produce new leaves in the spring. However, if the plant appears damaged this is where I would suggest giving the scratch test a try.

Simply use your fingernail or your garden shears to scratch a bit of the bark off of one of your damaged branches. If the plant tissue below is green; your plant is still alive and may just need some time to recover. If it is brown all the way through; that branch, and maybe even the entire plant may be in rough shape.

Sharpen Your Tools

A man sharpens a pruner outdoors, close-up. The man is wearing a white and black plaid shirt. The secateurs are clean, with sharpened blades, and bright blue handles. The sharpener is dark gray, rectangular shape.
Be sure to clean and sharpen your garden tools before pruning.

Before you begin cutting, you will want to make sure that your tools are cleaned and sharpened. This will probably be the first time you are using your shears since the fall, and they could probably use a bit of a tune-up.

Use a blade sharpener, or some sandpaper to remove any grit or rust that may have built up over the winter. Follow along the edge of the blade to sharpen them nicely.

Many garden centers will perform this service for you. If you are going to give this a try at home, wear protective gloves to protect your skin.

If your pruning shears are already sharpened, give them a quick cleaning. Diseases and insect eggs can linger in tools, and it is really simple to wipe them down. You can clean your shears with rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach. Allow the shears to dry completely before you use them.

Use the One-third Rule

Pruning rose bushes in spring. Close-up of green pruners in a gardener's hand, wearing a white and blue glove, pruning frost-damaged branches of a rose bush in a garden. Rose stems are tall, strong, dark green with red thorns. The leaves on the branches are shriveled, dry, brown due to frost. The gardener cuts the plant using the one-third rule.
Use the one-third rule when pruning damaged plants.

The number one pruning rule I have learned over the rules, and probably the most popular rule in general is the one-third rule.

This rule is easy to follow. When you are pruning for shape or removing damaged growth you will only want to remove one-third of the branch per year.

If your shrub is 3 feet tall, you will only want to remove 1 foot of branches. This might be frustrating if you have more severe damage, however, it is the best way for your plant to recover.

Similarly, to taking length off of your plant, if you are removing branches from within the plant it is best to only remove one-third of the branches from the plant per year.

Remove Damaged Flower Buds & Leaves

Close-up of frost-damaged rose flower buds in a garden. The buds are rounded, covered with brown dry petals, pale pink petals are barely visible inside. The stems of the rosebush are bright green fading to purplish black towards frost-damaged tops.
Late frosts can damage both flower buds and leaves.

Frost and cold temperatures can damage your flower buds as well as leaves on evergreen shrubs.

Late frosts can severely damage tender flower buds on your plants. The buds will turn brown or black and are easy to identify. These buds likely will not bloom, but if they do the flowers will be distorted. You can remove these flower buds by hand if you wish, or you can leave them to see what happens.

If you notice your leaves have dried out and become discolored, you are likely dealing with desiccation. It occurs when your plant is releasing more water than can be taken in by the roots. In the spring, these leaves will likely be pushed off by new growth. If they don’t you can use your hands to brush them off.

Keep the Plant’s Shape in Mind

Close-up of a gardener's hand cutting the branches of a bush in the garden with black secateurs. The secateurs are clean, with sharp blades, and black rubber handles. The branches of the bush are bare, thin, dark brown.
If your plant is badly damaged by frost, you can prune it back to the ground to encourage new growth in the spring.

While you are pruning, make sure you are taking a few steps back from the plant every now and again to make sure you aren’t damaging the shape of the shrub.

If the damage has occurred in a prominent place on your shrub, you may want to make the pruning a multi-year process. If you can hide your pruning because it is in the back of the shrub, go for it!

That being said, if your plant is severely damaged pruning to the ground, is an option! Use your garden shears to trim back branches to within a few inches of the ground. This will promote new growth in the springtime.

Remove Dead Wood

Cut branches of a garden hedge close-up. The bush is dense, many thick, cut branches, some of which have small oval leaves, dark green in color.
Trim dead wood that has no leaves to increase airflow and make room for new shoots to grow.

While you are pruning your shrubs keep your eye out for any deadwood within your plants. This is a great time to remove the deadwood. This is wood that has no leaves on it. It may appear hollow and will not be green if you perform the scratch test.

Sometimes, as is the case with hydrangeas, you can just pull the deadwood out with your hands. If this is not the case, you can cut it back to the ground or the nearest growth point.

Removing deadwood will help increase the airflow within the plant and will make room for new growth to flourish.

Water Before and After Pruning

A woman holds a hose spraying water on bushes in a spring garden. The bushes are dense and covered with green leaves. The hose is yellow, the sprayer is yellow-green.
Be sure to water the plant before and after pruning to improve its health.

We all know how important watering is to the overall health of our plants. It is especially important when you are pruning your plant and removing any growth. Water your plants before you prune your plants to help aid in proper wound healing.

Once you have completed your pruning work, remember to water your plants! Pruning creates open wounds on your plants. These wounds will heal best if the plants are well watered. Open wounds also can cause water loss.

Since it will be spring by the time you are completing this pruning, you should be ready to start your regular watering anyway. However, if these plants happen to be in an area where you don’t typically water it may be helpful to set a reminder or leave a hose out to drip.

Start Preparing in the Fall

Close-up of a gardener's hand in a raspberry jacket pruning long hydrangea stems with blue secateurs in an autumn garden. The hydrangea bush has tall, erect stems, on top of which are lush panicles of sterile flowers. Flowers and stems are brown.
Winterize your plants and prune them in the fall to prevent severe damage.

Living in a cold climate, you probably are mentally prepared for some damage to occur to your plants during the cold seasons. Pruning out dead wood or other potentially damaged limbs in the fall is a great way to prevent larger breakage from happening under the weight of ice and snow.

Another great way to prepare your plants for the cold winter months is by watering them! Once the ground freezes your plant will not be able to take in much water. The more water your plants can drink in the fall, the better they will be all winter long.

Ignore Pruning Altogether

Close-up of a frozen wilted hosta plant in a spring garden. The large shrub consists of thin stems at the tops of which are large, heart-shaped, ribbed leaves, dark green in color with yellow to brown and almost black damaged tips.
If your plants are hardy in your hardiness zone, then your best option may be to just wait it out.

You may have experienced a deep frost this winter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to prune your plant. Plants are resilient. If you are growing plants that are hardy in your hardiness zone, you may be just fine.

Frost can cause damage that may appear ugly. But the heart and soul of the plant may still be alive and well even if the outside makes the plant look like it won’t survive. This could be frost-damaged leaves or flower buds.

It may take a year for the plant to begin to look its best again. But pruning induces stress on your plant, so you may be better off not pruning at all.

Final Thoughts

Winter damage can be frustrating to deal with. Spring should be full of joy and happiness and having to prune away years of hard work is a bummer.

The best thing you can do is to be patient until you can fully assess the damage in the springtime. Take your time and make thoughtful cuts to help rejuvenate your plant and showcase its beauty this season.

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