The Basics of Pruning

When to prune, how to prune, where to prune? There’s no other task that strikes fear into the heart of most amateur gardeners as does the subject of pruning plants.

Younger femaile prunes hedge with clippers

Yet successful pruning can be among the most satisfying of garden tasks, because the results can be spectacular. Pruning done correctly yields abundant flowers, foliage and fruit.

Pruning done incorrectly results in damaged plants, disappointment and failure! No wonder we fear the process.

While pruning successfully may appear complicated and difficult, the fact is that it is no more complex than the many other gardening activities that gardeners engage in regularly.

It’s all in learning the correct methods for each type and variety of plant. There are distinct differences and the answer lies in what all good gardeners already know. Know each and every one of your plants and what it needs to thrive.

Along with quality soil, the right lighting and nutrients, good pruning is just another tool in the gardener’s toolshed and one that has some easy basic steps to master. Good pruning will result in a healthier, more vigorous garden.

What is pruning?

First of all, let’s define what pruning actually is and what it can do to help your plants. While you don’t have to be a master gardener to understand the entire process, you do need to have some basic plant knowledge.

Simply put, when pruning, a gardener is controlling the plants growth and development into specific patterns. Each shoot (or branch) on a woody plant ends in what is known as the terminal bud, below which other buds (or future branches) are positioned in specific patterns that or different for varying species of plants.

There are four basic arrangements of budding; alternate, opposite, spiral or whorled.

The terminal (end) bud is where the branch is growing longer and is the lead bud on the shoot. This bud produces a chemical that slows the growth of the buds behind it on the shoot.

If the terminal bud is removed by pruning, pinching or breaking off, the supply of that chemical is slowed and the other buds (which will form what are called lateral shoots) quickly grow and branch out, resulting in a bushier look to the plant instead of a long spirally growth.

That sounds pretty simple right, well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, again depending upon the individual species.

Gloved hands trim rose bushes with prunning shears

For the most part, pruning always stimulates growth, but how severe your pruning is on a plant depends on exactly what you want to happen.

If a plant has not been regularly pruned and has been left to grow in whatever pattern, that plant may need what is called a severe cutting back which will result in the spring in lots of new shoots fast growth.

Severe pruning (or cutting way back) will result in vigorous growth for a plant, but light pruning will allow slower growth.

Why prune?

There are people who claim that pruning goes against the natural growth pattern of the plant and has a potential to truly damage the plant, opening up a cut that allows disease to flourish. Plants do get sick and need surgery just like people.

The argument to prune states that a garden is a managed or controlled environment, and as such, each plant co-exists in regards to other plants in the garden.

There are times when it is absolutely necessary to prune to encourage healthier growth and healthier rejuvenated shrubs and plants. And then of course, there is the ornamental element.

Gardeners want a balanced symmetry to their garden plots, borders, and hedges. Pruning well will enable that groomed and well cared for look in a garden.

Of course, successful planting is key here also.

Knowing how large a plant will eventually become is important. There are plants that require much more space than the gardener allowed for them and no amount of pruning will squeeze them into a less than needed space allotment and in fact will truly damage the plant.

We’ve all seen the beautiful tiny bonsai trees, but that is a special plant designed to handle extensive training and careful minute pruning, but many shrubs have a necessary space. Plan carefully as you plant.

Pruning young tree | GardenersPath.com
With careful trimming, young trees and shrubs can achieve a perfect form in four or five years.

The argument against disease is that pruning cuts on young plants heal quickly. Four or five years of pruning on young establishing plants can get them into a great shape and basic framework that will only require occasional light pruning to maintain.

Again, knowing your plant and what shape, space and design you want it to have in your garden is important in knowing how and when to prune the plant.

However, even the most unrestricted and older plants require some form of annual pruning to keep them healthy and productive of fruit and flower.

Annual cutting removes old wood to allow young shoots to flourish and become stronger. Flowers, like roses, have larger blooms on young shoots than on old shoots.

Annual or renewal pruning results in plants that remain compact and youthful. Dead, damaged and diseased shoots and branches need to be cut all the way back to healthy wood.

These shoots need to be disposed of by burning to get rid of any infection or disease in the garden. Correct pruning is the most essential thing to restoring a sick plant to good health.

When to prune

It is accepted theory that the best time to prune is during the dormant times for any plant. In most growing zones in the United States this is the period between late fall and early spring. Winter pruning stimulates growth, while summer pruning slows it down.

However, on flowering shrubs, when you want to stimulate the most beautiful flower growth, pruning immediately after flowers die off is the best way to have full and abundant flowering growth the following spring. There are some plants that for various reasons are best served by spring, summer and early fall pruning.

Grapes, birch trees, and maple trees are examples. So again, knowing your goal and your plant is essential in successful pruning and knowing when to prune each plant.

Talking with your nursery, consulting online plant information and finding a good basic gardening book on pruning will help you find specific pruning information for every plant you purchase.

Tools for pruning

Very few tools are needed for normal garden pruning but purchasing quality ones is a solid investment for the amateur gardener. There are several important items to have.

A good pair of secateurs (or hand pruners as they are often labeled). Three main kinds are available: anvil, bypass, and parrot-bill. All of them should have a safety catch that locks the blades in a closed position.

Don’t buy cheap ones! They will break and not make the good quality cuts you need in successful pruning.

The anvil type has a straight edged cutting blade. The by pass has a curved blade that cuts against a curved fixed blad and the parrot bill has two curved edge blades that work like scissors.

When cutting with them, gripping the stem to be pruned off as far back on the blades will ensure a stronger cut and less risk of damaging the tool. These hand pruners are for smaller plants and thinner stems.

They’re great for rose bushes, flowering bushes and plants.

For larger shrubs and small trees, a long handled pruner is essential is cutting the thick stems. We use two main types in our home garden, a hand shear with long blade and handles and the long handled pruner.

Long bladed hedging shears work well for trimming evergreen shrubs and hedges. But when getting into difficult spaces and cutting thick stems, long handled pruners supply the extra cutting leverage and strength needed.

They also allow the gardener to work at a distance from thorny bushes.

Some gardeners like to use pruning saws and knives. These can require some practice to get used to using and for most beginning or amateur gardeners is not necessary.

However, for some older fruit trees and older shrubs, a small pruning saw like a Grecian saw that has a curved blade or the English pruning saw with tapered blades and teeth on both edges can be very useful in removing green wood and larger branches.

These should be all the tools necessary to allow you to begin pruning most plants in ordinary home gardens.

Pruning tips to consider before you even purchase or plant

I recommend that gardeners who need to learn more about pruning in their garden find the specific pruning instructions for each plant in their garden. I consider each plant we add to our garden as an investment and like any investment I want the care manual.

I want to know what it needs to eat and drink, where it likes to rest, in the shade or in partial sun or full, and how it needs to be groomed (pruned).

Doing some basic research before you invest in a plant is a good idea for all gardeners. Because pruning is best done as a young plant grows, learning what type and how to prune your plant is key before you plant it to make sure you allot enough space in your garden plot for that specific plant.

In the following segments, I give some examples of different basic garden plants and how to prune each one from initial planting to routine maintenance pruning. There are great garden books and I will highlight a few that we own as important.

Pruning Roses

Every gardener knows how incredibly beautiful a rose bush can be or how straggly and homely an uncared for rose can be! And for this article, it’s also important to note that while roses could be grouped with other shrubs and climbing bushes, they are such a large category and one that is beloved by many gardeners.

There is also a lot of variation in cultivated rose species from sprawling giants to petite miniature, some that bloom at very specific times and others that bloom the entire summer.

Again, best results will be gained by knowing what your specific rose species requires. But there are three main categories that cover most varieties: modern bush hybrid roses, species and shrub roses and climbing, rambling roses.

Brunette Beauty In A Garden

Modern Bush Rose

Basic techniques begin with buying plants that have 3 or 4 strong shoots and a well developed root system. Before you even plant, trim long, coarse or damaged roots.

If you’re planting in autumn or early winter, cut back damaged or unripe growth at the end of the shoots behind the teminal end bud. Just chop them off neatly to allow new bushier growth.

Pruning rose bushes | GardenersPath.com

This initial hard pruning will root out any damage shoots and will encourage vigorous growth in the spring. Inexperienced gardener fear “hurting” their new precious rose, but if they don’t give that hard initial pruning, they will have a weaker plant in the spring.

Cut back to about 6 inches of shoot on each shoot before you plant the rose. Follow other good planting techniques as per fertilizer and mulch. Then watch your new rose grow throughout the first year of spring and summer.

In mid to late autumn it’s a good time to cut out unripe growth or shoots that didn’t flourish and to tip (cut back) stems carrying faded flowers. In an exposed garden, where a lot of wind blows, it’s a good idea to shorten each stem by about 1/3.

This basic maintenance pruning should have you cutting back each stem to a bud that is between 6 and 10 inches above ground level. Cut back weak growth more severly than strong stems and to encourage the replacement of old wood with new, cut out to the base one of two main stems of oldest wood.

Now on a younger plant, you won’t have as much old wood, maybe not any on this one-year rose.

Pruning rose bushes | GardenersPath.com

As you make your pruning cuts, look at the direction the stem is growing in and make your cuts angled to allow them to grow out or in. A slight angle on your cut can change the direction of a stem and branch. Look at your rose bush and access the directions you want your rose bush to grow in.

Remember, roses don’t have to be one round shape, they can branch off with longer main stems and have shorter stems along several longer ones.

You can virtually sculpt the shape of your rose bush by the choice of where and how long and what direction you make your pruning cut.

Hybrid roses

These roses are deciduous thorny shrubs and they flower in summer and early autumn. Most grow to be between 3-4 ft high with stiff, upright stems and large, high centered flowers.

The aim of good pruning is to encourage a good floral abundance, with the bushes planted in beds or mixed in with other ornamental plants.

These hybrids vary in vigor and growth patterns depending upon the breeding behind them, so monitoring these hybrids is important in insuring beautiful flowers and healthy rose bushes.

Pruning hybrid roses | GardenersPath.com

As these roses bloom during the summer, they are capable of continuing to produce flowers if fading or decaying roses are removed and the entire stem (or truss) that held the flower is cut off at the first strong well placed eye (or new bud growth).

So when maintaining your rose garden, it’s important to carry with you a short hand pruner to carry out small daily pruning tasks. I also recommend garden gloves, since you will be working with thorny stems.

Species and shrub roses

These roses have great variation in size, growth, pattern and flowering performance and generally only flower once during a growing season.

Because of this and because these plants generally have a freer and more naturalized look about them, they require less maintenance pruning. Again, before you plant, prepare as above for other roses plantings.

You will not deadhead (remove flowers) during blooming season and the only pruning you need to do to maintain this plant is light to moderate to remove diseased branches or stems and to contain plant to the area you have assigned it.

Generally these shrubs need fair size space to develop in and once they are well established.

Pruning shrub roses

Prune in late winter or early spring by cutting back up to a third of the vigorous shoots that developed during the preceding growing season. At the same time you can cut further back on the older wood to about 6 inches.

You do not want to cut back as far on newer shoots as this could destroy the nice arching aspect of these roses and reduce the flowering in the summer.

Remember, new shoots produce the largest most attractive flowers. Old shoots support the structure of the plant.

The main purpose of pruning for these plants is aimed to providing space and to cut out older wood to allow the development of new vigorous shoots from the base of the plant.

Your maintenance pruning plan is to remove dead and diseased wood in the late winter or early spring, shorten by a third long new shoots and cut back laterals on shoots that have flowered already to about 4-6 inches.

And then in mid to late autumn cut back very long growths and of course any diseased stems or shoots that you notice.

Always looking for disease when you prune is a good tip. And again, there are so many variations in rose categories, that it’s difficult to pinpoint common practices that affect every single variety.

Knowing and figuring out what each species or rose plant requires is up to the gardener when he purchases and plants a distinct flower.

For instance “Nevada” is a modern shrub rose that needs almost no pruning. If in doubt, contact a good rose breeder or cultivater and ask for specific pruning techniques for your rose bush.

I always keep a gardening book with pages for each plant we purchase on planting, maintenance, nutrition needs, etc. for all our plants.

Climbing Rambling Roses

Final main category of roses are those climbers and ramblers that have very different characters. Some grow large enough to be virtual trees, some bloom only once, others produce prodigous displays of flowers the entire summer.

But all of these respond well to a regular programming of control and management and this is often the only way to accommodate them in any garden!

The result of good pruning is plants that will produce flowers along much of the stem length and not merely at the tip. But this is also the plant that requires the most skill and education on good pruning technique.

Again, there are three main types of ramblers that require different technique. Identify which type of rambling rose you have purchased and find out the best technique for your unique variety.

A good example and common rambler in home gardens these days are Hybrid Tea Roses. These repeat flower during a season, show fair to good resistance to disease and are easily trained against walls and fences. They reach a short height of 4-5 feet and so are excellent for smaller gardens.

Hybrid tea rose | GardenersPath.com
Hybrid tea roses bloom profusely during the summer months and special care should be give to their initial pruning.

At planting, do not hard prune back stems. Trim any long roots and only tip back damaged ends of stems and any weak side shoots. Begin training the rose as you plant it.

Do not force stiff stems, but whenever possible slant your pruning cuts in horizontal or angled cuts to encourage growth in that direction. Between mid-autumn and spring, after the first year, cut back stems that flowered the previous year to about 6 inches.

Cutting back these leaders allows new vigorous shoots and occasionally removing old stems at near ground level will encourage even more new growth.

With rambling roses, you need to provide strong support in the form of either tripods, or rustic poles and metal frames, brick walls or other older trees. Flexible stems can be tied up as necessary to maintain height until the plant itself develops some strong older shoots.

Training climbing roses requires patience and a good eye for direction, support and art. It’s fun, but challenging and it’s often why gardeners fear these plants in their garden.

Remember, pruning can be done wrong, and the plant will still survive and you start in a different direction with the plant. If all else fails, cut way back and begin again!

Shrubs

Shrubbery is the cornerstone of all garden beds. It’s what gives the garden structure, height, and is the base plantings in most beds. Shrubs are either deciduous (lose their leaves each year) or evergreen.

Many ornamental shrubs require only minimal pruning from one year to the next with just the cutting out of dead, diseased or damaged wood as soon as it is noticed.

However, some shrubs need regular pruning to enhance the decorative impact of the plant, the flowering strength and the overall shape of the plant in the gardeners design.

Magonolias in early spring
When properly pruned, magnolias, dogwoods, and some other blooming trees should have graceful, wide sweeping branches with plenty of “white space” to let sunlight gleam through. Think Japanese garden.

Deciduous Shrubs

As with most plants, focusing your pruning on the early young years of the plant establishes a well balanced framework. Some shrubs do not produce new growth from the base, magnolias and witch hazels being examples of this, and so just giving them a haircut occasionally is enough to keep them looking groomed and healthy.

For these plants, at planting remove any weak growth. And then in the spring of the second year, make any corrective cuts necessary to begin laying out the shape that you desire in the shrub.

Look at the basic plant and remove any laterals or extensions growths that are too closely spaced. This lays the basic framework for how and in what direction your shrub will flourish. In the third and following years, little more than routine pruning to remove dead or diseased wood is required.

Pruning Dogwood | GardnersPath.com
Sometime Dogwood and other similar species have minds of their own. It’s best to get rid of any competing trunk structures unless you think you can weave it into a special design.

These shrubs sometimes will produce what I call an independent shoot that just zooms out from the base. You may be able to train them in to your plan and basic framework, but if it’s not possible, just cut them out at the base to avoid the branches from becoming congested and not having the balance you want.

Many of these deciduous shrubs produce flowers in spring or early summer. Forsythia is a vivid common example. To maintain their profuse floral displays, you should cut out a proportion of the wood in late spring or early summer. If left unpruned, these plants often have lots of twiggy growth and sparse spattering of flowers.

The annual cutting out of dead or old wood allows development of new replacement shoots low down on the shrub and these new shoots will flower freely the following year. This annual pruning keeps the shrub shapely and compact but it’s more imperative to ensure good floral display.

Most plants purchased at a nursery will have had a couple of years of good framework pruning to establish a good structure from the beginning. But as these shrubs flower, new growth develops below the flowering wood.

The strongest shoots are those lowest on the stem, and these are the best to select as shoots when pruning. Leave them and encourage their growth by removing old wood. Cut the old and leave the young is the best rule of thumb for flowering shrubs.

Evergreen Shrubs

Every garden has evergreen shrubs. All of them have widely varying needs for pruning and you should consult your garden store or nursery for exact pruning advice or consult a good gardening book.

Pruning Evergreen Shrubs | GardnersPath.com

Pruning of ever greens can vary from broadleaf examples like lavender, dwarf conifers, and even camellias and rhododendrons. Most of them require minimal maintenance pruning but again you can’t lump them all together.

If left to their own devices there are a number of small evergreen shrubs that tend to not do well. They will produce fewer and fewer flowers and eventually become quite bare at the base. It’s almost impossible to rejuvenate some of them successfully once they have been neglected.

Lavendar is a good example of this. These shrubs need to be cut back hard in their first year and in following years at mid-spring, just as new growth is starting.

Although dead flowers can be removed in autumn, in cold areas leave them on to protect plant from severe cold. Pruning in mid spring works best. And then new growth that year will emerge.

For older plants with bare bases, it’s almost better to dig up and discard plant and start anew!

Gardening tips in general

I cannot emphasize enough for the beginning gardener the need to keep good written records and notes. I suggest you purchase a nice binder with pockets, dividers, etc.

For each plant that you buy, create a folder. Yes, an entire folder! In this folder write the correct scientific name. Consult gardening books, online sites, your nursery for advice.

Treat each plant as an investment of time, love, resources and labour. Write down the care instructions, the pruning times, the garden placement. Identify your plants, get to know them well, care for them properly.

Record when they bloom, what they were fed.

A good gardener goes into his or her garden each day and does regular daily gardening tasks of deadheading, weeding, supporting, feeding and watering as necessary.

I think often, too much emphasis is placed on watering and feeding and not enough on grooming and removing disease and dead branches, stems, and flowers.

Remove the dead, care for the healthy, encourage new growth and you’ll have a magnificent beautifully groomed garden that will reward you with hours and years of enjoyment.

Do the research you need to find healthy plants, and then care for them like your children and your pets. They are living creatures, your garden plants and need nurturing to excel and reach their full potential just like pets and children!

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Raisa Delima
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Raisa Delima

I’m glad you talked about what pruning is and why you should do it. I was really unclear on this before reading your article but I understand the importance of it all now! I’ll have to prune the three trees I have in my backyard so they stay healthy.

Bo
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Bo

If you live in zone 7 or less, have slow growing plants, and like the look of naturally growing plants, why prune? For fruits and nuts I think it is OK. Prune for bigger and fewer flowers, or more and smaller ones. Let it be. Take away dead or sick branches. It is much better to give the plants room to grow and starting to cut them back because of your bad planning does not promote health. The same with topping, shearing, etc. Topiary gives more healthy plants? Topping gives more healthy plants? I have never seen these in nature.… Read more »

Christine Newman
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Christine Newman

I got so much from this article. I am now aware of how to care for my perennials and also I now know that my lilac bush is a total loss ????. I have tried so much to bring it back and it just CONTINUES to get thinner and less flowers. I am going to dig it up and start over again. I am pretty new at this and I love it so very much. We have a large yard with so many options for beautiful gardens and I have convinced my fiance to buy more perennials this year VERSUS… Read more »