When to prune Willow Trees: Best practices and seasonal tips for healthy growth

From early spring, the willow tree becomes a wonder to behold with stately branches and fluttering foliage. But whether you have weeping willow trees or a willow tree sapling, pruning away broken branches and overgrown branches is essential. As the tree matures from a young sap, this pruning ensures that willows maintain good air circulation and grow into pleasing, healthy shapes.

So, when should you start?

This quick guide to pruning Salix willow trees covers the best time of year to prune a tree, how to prune below the leaf bud, and some quick FAQs answered by our expert horticulturalists.

The best time to prune a mature willow tree

Willow tree pruning, like with most trees, is best done in the winter. From early to late winter, there is no new growth and no foliage to contend with on the branches and small twigs. This makes it easy to see where to cut and you can prune willows without worry. Of course, this is true of most deciduous trees.

As soon as the warm weather emerges and the plant starts actively growing, the second you break through the bark or snap a branch, the plant will bleed sap. This can be very unhealthy for the tree, not to mention messy, so make sure to avoid pruning in the warmer months of spring and summer altogether.

Typically, mature willow trees rarely need pruning unless you have broken branches to remove. The young tree needs the most attention and may have denser stems to contend with. In such cases, you can prune willows to adjust their shape and landscape your garden as they grow – this is too difficult to do once the plant is fully grown.

Prune a willow tree in three steps

Willow tree pruning is very simple once you know the best time to get started. Whether you have weeping branches from a weeping willow tree or dwarf stems to trim back, follow these three steps.

1. Choose the right tools

The cutting tools you need for your willow tree greatly depend on the size of the tree and the branches, as well as how much pruning you need to do. Obviously, for major changes and heavier branches, you’ll need a more robust tool. For smaller branches that are nearer ground level, a lighter tool will do the trick.

At Gardeners Dream, we recommend:

  • Pruning shears
  • Hand pruners
  • Pole pruners
  • Long-handled loppers
  • Saws

Whichever tool you choose for pruning the tree, make sure they are sharp so you can get a clean stub cut. This will help you get your tree into a better shape and the pruned wood will fall cleanly to the ground to be collected.

2. Select where to prune

When pruning young willow trees, you need to be methodical. To start with, identify the trunk of the tree and the strong central leader. This central stem will be at or near the centre of the tree and one of the tallest. Once you have identified which branch you want to be the central stem, you can mark competing stems to be removed.

Next, examine your tree from all angles to assess where wind breakage has created broken branches and weak branches that will break if they get any larger. Branches that grow upwards rather than outwards will need to be removed too. If any branches are growing on the lower part of the tree, too close to the soil, these should be snipped to create a better shape. Finally, you can look for crowded branches and long branches that are reducing airflow or create a poor aesthetic structure. If you have a weeping variety, you can also shorten weeping branches.

If you are new to pruning or have an overgrown willow to prune, it can be helpful to mark each branch that needs cutting at the leaf bud before you begin – this will prevent you from accidentally cutting the wrong branch when you are in the thick of it.

3. Cut below a leaf or stem bud

Once you are ready to remove branches from your willow trees and it’s the right time of year (if early spring is approaching, you’re too late and will need to wait for winter again), grab your pruning shears. The trick is to always cut just beyond a leaf or twig bud for healthy trees.

So, assess the branch and find a node where the tree grows a leaf or twig from. You should make one small, firm cut a few inches from the bud. Hold the top half steady in your hand and let the clipped branch fall to the ground. For damaged and unhealthy branches, cut as close to the trunk as possible. This will help the tree heal faster.

Once you have pruned the tree to establish a central stem, improve airflow, and remove damaged areas, you can gather the leftover wood to be recycled, composted, or burnt. Clippings that are taken during the spring or summer can even be propagated into further willows or weeping willows, just don’t do the majority of your pruning at this time of year.

For further advice, reach out to our horticulturalists at Gardeners Dream. Their knowledge of ornamental trees knows no bounds!


How do you prune an overgrown willow tree?

To prune a willow tree, identify the branch that is the central leader and remove competing stems. Remove them by a leaf or twig bud for healthy branches, allowing new growth to flourish. Any broken branches should be removed as close to the trunk as possible.

How and when to prune a weeping willow tree?

Weeping willow trees should be pruned during the winter when they are young, targeting broken branches and pruning weak branches that will snap in strong winds. Identify the central stem and remove those that compete or block airflow.

Can you cut a willow right back?

Willows and weeping willows can be heavily pruned in the winter to promote healthy growth. Rather than pruning back to the trunk or the ground, remove damaged areas, branches competing with the main stem, and branches blocking airflow. As the tree grows, less pruning will be required. Mature willow trees require very little maintenance.

How do you shape a willow tree?

To landscape your willow or weeping willow, start while the tree is young and only prune in winter. To create a nice aesthetic, remove any branch that is too close to the ground, damaged, rubbing with other stems, or blocking airflow. Once trimmed, the tree will grow into a nice shape during the active months.

How do you prune a willow structure?

Pruning a weeping willow (or other willow variety) is simple – prune when there is no active growth, to prevent sap bleeding from the trees. Remove branches that block airflow to the trunk and any damaged or competing branches until there is even coverage all the way around.

When should a willow tree be pruned?

Pruning the stems of a weeping willow or another willow should be done when the tree is young and during the winter. When each branch is free of foliage, it will be easier to assess damaged and rubbing branches, and it is healthier for the tree at this time of year too.

What happens if you don’t prune willow trees?

Willows experience a lot of growth when they are young, so if the weeping willow tree is not pruned the branches will grow thick and even damage the tree trunk. Branches that are allowed to grow upwards or compete with the main stem will create an awkward form and weaken over time until they naturally break and damage the tree. Branches that block airflow can result in stagnant growth and disease too. Pruning the tree helps to create a pleasing form that’s healthy for the tree and pleasant for your garden.

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