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The Complete Guide to Pruning

One of the most intimidating tasks for new gardeners when caring for any plant is pruning. The thing most beginners worry about is over pruning their plants.

After all, the concept of pruning can be difficult to understand since the whole point seems to be allowing a plant to grow, not reducing its mass.

While the concept may seem a bit hard to grasp, it’s actually quite simple. In fact, other aspects of growing plants, like watering, can use similar logic to benefit a plant’s overall development.

The Complete Guide to Pruning

In this guide, we’ll explain what pruning is, why it can benefit plants, how to go about it the right way, and a few common mistakes you can avoid.

Pruning: What Is It?

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Pruning isn’t a complicated concept. You’re cutting back weak and dead material for live plants to promote healthier growth.

In other words, if you have a rose bush with dead branches, you want to cut those off, so your bush doesn’t put any more energy into those unproductive branches.

Think of plants like cylindrical containers with multiple hollow tube lines sticking out from the main body. Connected to those tubes are smaller hollow tube lines that have small balloons attached to smaller protrusions.

If you were to fill the main container up with water, the fluid would begin to distribute evenly throughout as you fill it up to the top. Each balloon would begin to fill with water.

However, with plants, it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes the branches (hollow tubes) can become diseased or damaged, causing the plant to waste nutrients (water) on nonproductive material.

Meanwhile, the plant is expending considerable energy trying to feed a weak, dead, or otherwise unproductive branch, which can lead to it not putting the energy it needs into growing and nourishing healthy branches.

It’s almost like how a lazy or disruptive employee can bring down productivity as a manager may have to devote more time fixing or correcting their mistakes than helping better workers improve their performance.

If you think about it, pruning is a natural part of our society. We just call it different things like imprisoning, firing, expelling, and voting out. 

Reasons for Pruning

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Here we will go over some very good reasons why you want to prune your plants.

Promote Healthy Plant Growth

As we discussed earlier, by pruning your plant, you’re directing its energies to promote healthier, more productive growth. This is especially noticeable with flowering and fruiting plants.

The last thing you want is for your healthy branches to compete for resources with dead-end branches that will never produce results and compromise your plant’s structural integrity. If a branch isn’t helping your plant, it’s hurting it. Every part of your plant needs to be working hard. There’s no room for slackers.

Also, by reducing the size of your plant, you’re opening up airflow and giving your healthier branches more opportunity to soak up the sunshine.

Control Size

You also use pruning to control the sizes of your plant. Many people think of the pruning art known as Bonsai, a pruning technique that allows people to keep mini trees alive sometimes for hundreds of years in special containers.

If you’re growing a hedge or just trying to keep your plant at a manageable size, pruning is what you need to do. This can also be applied to growing fruits and veggies, as you may not want your plant invading the space of other plants.

Pruning can be a way of training your plants to grow in the direction and to the size you need them to be.

Train Growth Habit

I touched a little bit on training growth habits in the above section. Certain plants like climbing plants such as hops need to be trained to grow a particular way. For example, if you’re growing hops, you teach your plant how to grow onto a string and then up a pole. The same concept applies to certain tomato plants that use tomato cages. And, of course, this concept applies to hedges.

Produce Better Harvests

I talked about how pruning can create better productivity. This includes harvests. For plants that produce fruits, nuts, and veggies, productivity is measured by the output of these terminating growths.

By pruning, you’re controlling your plant so it can focus its finite energies on growing the strongest branches which will produce the healthiest and most delicious produce.

Improve Plant Appearance

Pruning can also be used to create a certain look. We’ve all seen those fancy hedges shaped like animals, people, and different objects. While your cosmetic gardening goals might not be as ambitious, you might still wish to keep things trim and tidy.

There’s nothing quite like walking through a well-trimmed landscape. It’s like a compromise between nature’s will to grow and humankind’s need to control our environment.

Guide To Pruning: Protect People and Property

Pruning can also protect people, pets, and property. Overgrowth of certain plants can damage homes and cause injuries. Imagine a rose bush that grows out of control, creating a path of thorny branches in your yard?

Trees are one of the main problems when it comes to the potential for damaging property, as what starts out as a shrub close to your home can quickly cause issues as branches grow into your windows, siding, gutter, and roof.

Trees that are not properly pruned can grow heavy limbs over your property which could cause serious damage should they rot and fall or break off during a storm.

Untrimmed trees can also give unwanted pests a pathway into your home.

Pruning Techniques / Types of Pruning Cuts

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Here are three pruning cuts you can use to remove excess foliage or a diseased limb from your plant.

Heading

With heading, you slice off small portions of a plant’s branches. Doing this allows you to control its size while stimulating growth within its side stems. Plus, this form of pruning lets you control the direction your plants grow.

Pinching

Pinching is a form of pruning that involves the removal of your plant’s main stem by pinching it off with your fingers. This encourages the growth of new stems while promoting a fuller plant. Plus, it doing this helps keep your plant compact.

Thinning

Thinning keeps your plant from getting overcrowded by reducing foliage density. This form of pruning will allow for better airflow and more sunlight while limiting the places pests kind hide.

Techniques to Avoid

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While pruning is relatively straightforward, there are a few things you should try to avoid doing. Here are the three most common mistakes gardeners make while pruning.

Pruning at the Wrong Time

The first mistake is pruning at the wrong time of year. For example, on flowering shrubs, one of the most common issues gardeners face are shrubs that are not blooming. Typically, this issue either stems from the plant not getting enough sun or they pruned it at the wrong time (which is usually the case).

Take, for example, an Oakleaf Hydrangea. It blooms on old wood. And since it blooms in the summertime, once it sets flowers, if you come after that and cut it back, you’re probably cutting off the blooms that were set right after it flowered.

You may not always see the flower buds, but they are there. So it’s important to know just when the best time is to prune each plant and stick to that schedule.

Using the Wrong Pruners for the Job

Another common mistake is using the wrong set of pruners for the job. There are two types of pruners, bypass, and anvil pruners. However, they are not really interchangeable.

Bypass pruners cut like scissors, with the sharp blade bypassing the second blade to create a clean cut. These pruners should be used on live growth.

Anvil pruners have a blade that lands on a plate. It basically crushes the wood to sever. While anvil pruners are great for dead wood, you wouldn’t want to use them on live plant tissue.

This is because anvil pruners crush instead of cut cleanly. They can leave behind damaged live tissue, which is something you definitely don’t want. Damaged live plant tissue has more exposure to pests and diseases.

Now, you can use bypass pruners to cut into dead wood, but they do not cut as well as anvil pruners.

Note: You may also use a pruning saw for very thick branches or for ones that are hard to reach with traditional pruners. However, you should only use pruning saws on dead wood and never live plant tissue as they can leave the area damaged.

Not Knowing How Much to Cut or Where to Make Your Cut

The last mistake is not knowing how much to cut or where you should make your cut. One easy rule to remember is the rule of thirds.

Think of it this way. The more you cut a plant down, the more stress you introduce to that plant. It’s not unlike going to the gym for the first time to get into shape.

If you go in there all hyped up on energy drinks and workout like you’re a professional athlete on your first day, there’s a good chance you could either injure yourself or become so sore the next day you’ll avoid being in the gym’s zipcode for the rest of the year.

Pruning back too much can create a similar situation for your plant, which has to then fight harder than it should to make up that lost ground. However, as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to create situations where your plant has to work a little harder.

For example, I mentioned watering. There are times when you can overwater plants, which causes root rot and stagnant growth. Why? Because that plant’s root system may not be growing as deep or as far as it should. Certain plants like orange trees need to be watered to make the tree’s developing roots reach out to feed on more water.

Pruning the right way follows the same principle, encouraging your plants to grow back stronger. However, as is the case with not watering enough, pruning back too much introduces far too much stress, forcing your plant to waste resources on a problem you created.

This is where the rule of thirds finds the right balance for most plants. There are a few exceptions. So with this rule, you’ll make your cut about a third down from the tip of the stem or branch you’re cutting.

Not Cutting in the Right Spot

Pruning is a bit more involved than just cutting back live and dead unwanted branches and stems. It’s also about where you make your cut and sometimes the angle of your cut.

For instance, on a branch or stem, you may notice protrusions that look like little bumps called buds. These buds represent potential new stems or branches that have yet to develop.

So let’s say you notice two buds growing on opposite sides of a branch. By cutting about a third above those two buds, you’ll stimulate the plant to focus its resources on growing two new branches.

Now, let’s say you have two buds with one slightly above and another slightly below on opposite sides. If the bottom bud is facing out, you’ll want to cut between the top and bottom bud so that the own facing out will develop.

As a rule, you don’t want branches developing toward the center of your plant as this creates crossing stems or branches, which can tangle up, rub, and damage other stems while restricting airflow and sunlight.

Also, a note on stubs: You don’t want to leave your stubs, the part of the stem or branch between the cut end and the bud, too long as this can invite pests and diseases. Try to cut as close to the bud without damaging it when possible.

Making the Cut

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Most of your cuts will be made at about a 45-degree angle. Doing so when cutting the above buds will create a slant. The bottom slope of your slant must be facing away from the bud. Otherwise, water will run into the bud, and it won’t grow as it should.

Here’s a good example. If your bud is on the bottom stem, cut from underneath at a 45-degree angle, and the rainwater will trickle down the opposite side of the bud.

So, remember to slant away from the bud.

Pruning Fruit Trees

Here are a few fruit tree pruning guides to help your tree produce the best harvests in town.

Pruning Flowers and Bushes

Here are a few handy pruning guides for different flowers and bushes.

Pruning Trees and Other Plants

These handy guides will show you how to prune trees as well as other types of plants.

Pruning Tools

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Take a look at these lists for some of the best pruning shears you can buy!

Pruning for Every Season

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Early Spring

Fruit trees are commonly pruned during early spring, while they are still dormant and their young buds have yet to break. Hedges such as dogwood and beech and topiaries such as boxwood and yew are also examples of plants commonly pruned during the early spring season. There are also some trees that benefit from pruning during this period.

Late Spring

Most ornamental flowering plants and shrubs such as azaleas and forsythia are pruned just after their blossoms fall off. Pruning any sooner risks sniping off viable growing flower buds.

Summer

Evergreen shrubs such as camellias and Rhododendrons need to be pruned during the early summer to be at their hardiest for the winter. These bushes need to be pruned either late spring or early summer as this helps them maintain their shape while removing damaged foliage to keep them in the best condition.

Fall

Plants such as lavender, gardenias, and specific types of hydrangeas do best when pruned in the fall while they are going dormant. This way, they can emerge during the Spring with beautiful blooms.

Winter

Trees pruned during late winter while they are dormant can prevent the spread of diseases. Pests such as warm-season beetles look for open tree wounds and are most active during the summer months. When such pests are inactive, pruning trees during the winter prevents the illness from spreading.

Wrapping Up Pruning

As you can see, pruning is a very important practice to ensure your plants grow strong and healthy. The main concept behind it is shedding the weak or dead growth from the greater plant body to preserve the healthier live tissue and the energy the plant dedicates toward new growth such as stems, branches, fruits, and flowers.

To learn more about the best gardening pruning tools and other tools for your garden, please visit our Minnetonka Orchards Tools section.