Overgrown and neglected woody plants aren't always a lost cause, so don't rush to replace them with new plants. These trees and shrubs can be revived using a method of pruning known as hard pruning as it is a more in-depth pruning that goes deeper than regular pruning. This type of pruning is also known as renovation pruning or three-budded pruning.

Why Use Hard Pruning?

Hard pruning is useful for woody plants that have a lot of old growth but lack significant new growth. Using this technique will reduce the stress and strain from the old growth, and will induce the plant to put out healthy new growth.

Alternatively, hard pruning can also be a solution for too much growth and is commonly used for shrubs that have overgrown beyond their designated garden spaces. However, if you do try to prune a shrub in this way keep an eye on it after the fact. There's a fair chance that your effort to reduce the size of the plant in this manner could result in the bush growing more vigorous growth afterward and thwart the efforts to reduce it's size.

One other reason that gardeners might use three-budded pruning is to even out woody plants growing in a lopsided fashion. This will make your tree more aesthetically pleasing and can be a quick fix to beautify your landscape, but it's not just a cosmetic technique. Plants growing crookedly, especially heavy structures like trees that may favor one side as they develop, can put an unnecessary load on their trunk, strain their roots, and create structural stress that negatively impacts its health. Taking the time to do this renovation pruning can have an equally positive impact by redistributing some of that weight away from the trunk.

When to Hard Prune

Trunks of Deciduous Trees on Grass

The right time to hard prune will depend on the type of plant you need to prune. Typically, deciduous plants need to be pruned when they are dormant during the fall or winter months. Evergreen plants that need renovation pruning should receive it in the spring, as this is when they are just starting the growing process again. Keep in mind that any plants that are pruned in a season that’s different from the usual should be hard pruned during their regular pruning window.

Can Your Wood Plant Survive?

One of the questions that must be asked when it comes to hard pruning is whether or not the plant will be able to survive such a vigorous pruning. Not all will be able to survive, and you may be better served by replacing them. Plants that are diseased should be treated before the hard pruning. If they are unable to be cured of their illness, you’d be better off replacing it than hard pruning. In addition, older plants may not be able to survive hard pruning, so you may choose to replace them rather than hard pruning.

Estimating Prior Year’s Growth

Side by Side Plants Showing Progression of Seedling Growth

Keep in mind that this is a specialized pruning technique that's only necessary in specific instances so it's important to have a clear idea of a plant's growth rate and history before committing to this task to figure out whether or not the tree or woody plant had suitable growth over the past year to see if a hard pruning is necessary.

For example, there's a clear difference between tree that’s still growing vigorously won’t require as deep a pruning as advocated by hard pruning. For trees, a good rule of thumb is if the tree grew over 20 inches, it had a vigorous year of growth. In this case, you’d want to ignore the three-budded rule and stick with allowing the spur bearer to keep between four to six buds. Trees that didn’t grow over 20 inches aren’t thriving, and the three-budded rule should be in play. The spur bearer should be cut down to three buds.

For neglected trees and other woody plants, you may find that there are more spur bearers than you can keep track of during pruning. This amount of spur bearers can make it feel more complicated to hard prune the tree, but it doesn’t have to be so. You can prune off some of the excess of the spur bearers. The easiest way to do so simplifies the tree by only allowing the spur bearers closest to the framework branches to remain.

Talk to the Professionals

When it comes to hard pruning and trees, it may be beneficial to speak to a professional if you have a large tree that needs severe hard pruning. They can advise you on the health of the tree and the viability of the tree surviving the process. They also can safely perform the necessary work if you think it may be beyond your capabilities.

You may also want to find about any ordinances that may impact you working with the tree, such as if the tree is on the property line between you and a neighbor.

Hard pruning trees and other woody plants may seem like going overboard, but it can be a beneficial way to get a tree that’s no longer flourishing to start exhibiting more steady growth in the future. Be sure that any tree that you’re planning on hard pruning can survive the process before getting started or your hard work may be for nothing. The reward that comes from utilizing this pruning methodology are trees that are growing more rapidly and steadily with new fresh growth.