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Does pruning plants intimidate you? Afraid of killing your plants? It is not as scary as you think and you can learn how to prune properly.

pruning plants

A lot of tasks in gardening add to the garden.

What do I mean by that?

Whether you are planting something, adding mulch to your beds, building some structures or adding paths, you are improving your garden by adding to it.

If something doesn’t work out you can remove it and replace it. If you planted something in the wrong spot, you can in most cases move it successfully.

So doing anything in your garden that involves cutting things can be quite intimidating.

You are taking something away from your garden, specifically from a plant that has been growing well and producing vegetables, fruit, flowers or foliage.

Pruning when done wrong can affect a plant’s health.

In fact in some cases you can kill a plant by pruning incorrectly. Therefore pruning for beginner gardeners can be a very stressful task, filled with fear and apprehension that you will do something wrong.

Let’s put that stress to rest and look at how you can make pruning easier.

This is a comprehensive post on pruning.

Tools You Need For Pruning Plants

You will need a few simple tools to make pruning bushes and other plants easy and effective.

The right tools will allow you to prune plants without damaging them and inviting disease into the cuts. And as with other gardening tasks, having the right tools means you will also be able to prune quickly with not much wasted effort.

Here is a list of tools I recommend:

1. Pruners: A good set of pruners is critical to effective pruning that won’t damage your plants. They are also called secateurs or clippers. They need to be comfortable to hold and have a good spring action to open after you squeeze them shut, but not so stiff as to cause hand fatigue.

Felco F-5 Classic Manual Pruning Shears

2. Loppers: If you are mainly cutting plants that have soft stems or woody stems under 1/2 inch (~1cm) in diameter, you may not need loppers. However if you have a pair of loppers you’ll avoid the temptation to cut woody stems that are too thick for your pruners. You can break your pruners and you can injure your hands as well by trying to cut thick branches.

Power Lever Extendable Handles Bypass Lopper Telescopes, 27” to 37”

3. Hedge Shears: Using hedge shears is usually reserved for trimming hedges, which this post won’t cover specifically. However hedge shears can also be used on bushy plants to trim them to shape more quickly than using pruners to cut each branch or stem individually.

Fiskars 9191 Power Lever 8-Inch Hedge Shears With Soft Grip Handle

4. Gloves: If you are pruning any plant that has thorns such as roses or sticky sap, you should protect your hands with a pair of gloves. They will also keep your hands warm if you are working in the fall or winter in colder weather. The Atlas line of gloves is a good value.

Atlas NT370 Nitrile Garden and Work Gloves, Green Apple, Medium

5. Trugs: When you are pruning lots of plants, you will generate piles of cuttings. Soft cuttings can be places in a trug or other container, so that you can easily carry it to the compost. You may want to have another trug or container available for woody stems or branches. And I’ll often have a smaller pail for diseased prunings that need to go into my municipal green bin.

TubTrug SP26R Medium Red Flex Tub, 26 Liter

Once you have these tools, it is important to maintain them properly, especially your pruners. Check out the article on How to Maintain Pruners for more information.

Pruning Away The Three D’s

Pruning involves cutting out the three D’s first before you tackle other parts of the plant. What are the three D’s?

Dead

These are stems and branches that have no more life in them.

The plant may simply have too many stems and branches and thus is self-pruning by killing off extra foliage. Or the stem may simply be a certain age and has finished serving the plant.

These are critical to remove as they take up room that could otherwise be used by healthy foliage. Too many dead branches will choke the plant and cause disease as the plant can’t dry off quickly when it gets wet after a rain or after watering.

Usually you can tell dead stems and branches as they will be brown, gray or black. Rarely would they be green. However be careful as woody plants do have brown stems which are still actively growing.

To tell definitively if a branch is dead, try snapping a small section of it off. If it snaps off easily and is dry inside, it likely is dead. If it bends and doesn’t snap easily it probably is still viable. When in doubt keep it and see if it grows any greenery next spring. You can always cut it off then if it doesn’t produce any foliage.

Dead stems and branches also don’t have any leaves (other than dried ones) and no viable flower or leaf buds. If they do have buds, the buds will be brown and dry and likely easy to break off with no sign of green at the break point.

Damaged

These are stems and branches that have become damaged from wind or animals.

They fall into the same category as dead branches as they take up valuable space that could be used by healthy foliage. Plus they could be an entrance for diseases.

These are probably the easiest branches to find. It should be very obvious if the branch is broken and just hanging on by a thread of bark. Or if the branch has bark missing or stem is bent over and kinked.

It may be less obvious if the foliage has some damage on the surface, especially if the damage is facing down or to the back of the plant that is not readily visible. Usually though a damaged branch will eventually look like a dead branch in a short period of time, although I’ve seen some damaged branches, even partially broken ones, actually heal and knit back together again.

Diseased

These are stems and branches that have some type of disease on them.

These are critical to remove as they can spread disease to healthy parts of the plant or to other plants close by.

Since diseases can vary greatly depending on the plant, this makes it hard to determine which foliage is diseased. If a woody branch is very spongy that is usually a sign that something has infected it and it should be pruned out.

This google image search will give you some ideas of what typical diseases stems look like.

Important Note: If you are cutting diseased stems, you need to take extra care that you do not spread the disease to other plants. Kee your pruners clean and disinfected by dipping them in a container of a 10% bleach solution in water before moving to the next plant. More on how to dispose of diseased plant material in Part 2.

Pruning Living Stems and Branches

The second type of foliage you will need to prune is where beginner gardeners hesitate.

Mainly because now you will be cutting into fresh and living parts of the plant.

Unless you are very drastic with your pruning, you usually can’t completely kill a plant by incorrect pruning. You may not get any blossoms or flowers next year or your plant may look a bit odd for a year or two until it can grow back. But this should not keep you from trying to prune your plants.

This type of pruning will help to open up the plant, get rid of crossing branches and improve the overall form of the plant.

Crossing Branches

These are branches that start on one side of the plant and cross through it to the other side.

You need to get rid of these.

The main issue with crossing branches is that they choke up the inside of the plant possibly inviting disease because of the lack of airflow through the plant.

Crossing branches also will rub on other branches, removing the protective outer layer, which exposes the tender inside cells of the plant to diseases.

Interior Branches

Even branches that don’t cross but take up space inside the plant should be pruned out.

Again you want to open up the inside of the plant for airflow so these branches need to go.

Pruning for Looks and Size

Pruning for looks and size is your final goal.

Some plants can get too big if not pruned regularly. You should always consider the mature size of a plant or tree when choosing the planting location, so that you don’t have to struggle to keep the plant small. But some maintenance pruning is necessary.

Flower plants that get too high will flop over from the weight of the blooms. Hydrangeas are especially susceptible to this. Some plants tend to exhaust themselves if they get too big and a pruning will invigorate them to produce better foliage and blooms.

Other branches to get rid of are ones that jut out at odd angles to improve the overall look of the plant.

When To Prune Plants

Pruning can be done at any time of the year for damaged or diseased stems and branches since these are not actively growing. If you are careful you will not damage the plant.

However for foliage which is still viable, but is being pruned for shape and control, you need to be more careful about the timing. Otherwise for flowering plants and bushes you may end up with no blossoms next year!

I remember a neighbour of ours when I was a child that used hedge shears to trim her camelia bush into a round ball every winter. In spring the bush had almost no flowers as she had cut away all of the immature buds.

She complained to us that the bush wasn’t doing well and when my father mentioned she is pruning off all the buds, she didn’t listen. When she passed away and the house was sold, the bush finally had a chance to recover and the first spring was covered in beautiful pink blossoms. And it really didn’t grow out of control either.

So the lesson here is to be careful that you do not trim off all the flower buds on bushes and plants that create buds during the growing season for the following year. Flowers that fall into this category are camelias, azaleas, rhododendron and hydrangea plus some other ones. It is best to prune right after they have flowered to avoid damaging the developing buds for the following year.

Best bet is to search for specific info on when to prune:

[plant name] pruning time

As an example here is what I get when I type in camelia pruning time:

google search camelia pruning time

How to Prune Plants

This is the part that stops most beginner gardeners.

The act of cutting into a plant is a one-time, undoable action. You can’t glue the branch back on nor is there an Undo button as we are so used to on computers.

However it really doesn’t have to be that stressful. With a few guidelines you won’t make mistakes and the ones you do make, you can learn from and the plant usually will recover.

Where to Cut

When you are cutting off dead or diseased foliage, always cut into good material.

It might feel more safe to cut just before the good material, but what happens is you leave a dead or diseased stub on the plant. This can cause problems in the future, especially for diseased stubs.

So cut above the first bud or leaf joint that is past the diseased or dead section. Locate your cut just above the bud but not too close. In this photo I have marked where to cut. The bud is the light green part of the stem.

rose bud

Too far away and you will get a dead stub between the cut and the bud. Too close and the bud may be damaged and won’t develop.

You will learn as you go and will make some mistakes.

That’s okay.

Which bud though do you choose? On many plants there will be buds all along the stem. This can be quite confusing and a time of indecision and doubt.

It is simple though: always choose a bud that is outward facing. In this photo I’ve circled which ones would be good candidates in green and which ones wouldn’t in red – the top red one is simply too high up even though it is facing the right  way. I’ve already pruned at the bottom green one (and probably should have pruned closer to the bud!). Next one to prune is the green one on the left.

Your cut may be a bit further down the plant than you originally had planned. However if you prune plants above an inward facing bud, guess what happens? The branch that sprouts from that bud will grow inwards, exactly what we want to avoid to keep the plant’s interior from getting congested.

How to Cut

Once you have located where to cut, cut through firmly without leaving a ragged cut.

If you get consistently ragged cuts, consider sharpening your pruners as covered in How to Maintain Pruners Ragged cuts can invite disease as the plant may not be able to heal properly.

And you don’t need to put anything on the cut like you would on a cut on your finger. Plants will heal themselves so long as you’ve used clean pruners.

Continue pruning, pruning away foliage as outlined above.

Stop once in a while to monitor your progress.

Don’t get too carried away and prune plants too much. Once you are somewhat happy with the pruning, clean your pruners and then move on to the next plant.

Here’s another example of a simple pruning of a fuschia in a container, before and after, that will keep the plant from getting too leggy:

fuchsia to be pruned
fuschia pruned

Pruning is a great task that you can fit in easily into your busy schedule.

You can prune just one rose bush for instance in a few minutes, clean your pruner and put it away if that’s all the time you have. Over the course of a weekend or two you can be done pruning.

Special Pruning Considerations

Flowering perennials such as Hydrangea, Rhododendrons and Azaleas need a bit more care when pruning. As mentioned above it is important to time the pruning right.

But even more important is to not prune off next year’s buds. Unless you are okay with having one year without flowers.

If you do have a bush that needs a more severe pruning to control it, err on the side of caution and prune only half of the bush this year. Then prune the other half next year after it has finished flowering. That way you will still have blooms.

Some bushes actually can be pruned completely to the ground and they will send up new shoots in spring which will flower. It sounds drastic but if not done, the plant will actually not do that well. Before you do so however, make sure the plant is one that will recover.

Raspberry and other berry canes also require some special pruning techniques. I have a full post with video on Prune Raspberries: How To Get Better Harvests

Occasionally you will have to make a hard decision to remove a bush or plant completely. Maybe it is sickly and not doing well and no amount of care seems to revive it. Or maybe it is simply in the wrong spot.

This happened to me as I had a bush in the wrong spot and it was casting too much shade on my vegetable garden. I did always cut it back but it grew so quickly that I couldn’t keep up to it. I decided to simply cut it down completely. Likely it will shoot up again from the ground so then I could try and keep it small.

Bush taking over garden
Bush trimmed back

Cleanup

Now that your pruning is done, what exactly do you do with all the prunings? They generally fall into three categories:

Diseased or Pest-infested Prunings

These prunings need to be handled carefully, if you don’t want the disease or pests to take over your whole garden.

As you prune plants, put any diseased prunings in a separate collection container as you prune them off. Don’t throw them on the ground first or drag them through the whole garden.

Once you have them collected you have a few options for disposal:

  • Municipal “green” bin: Lots of municipalities now offer this service for kitchen scraps and garden waste as part of the general waste collection service. Since the commercial composting facilities that take these scraps and waste use hot composting techniques, any disease or pests usually will be killed during the process. Most urban gardeners will find it difficult to generate enough heat in their small-sized composts to kill diseases, pests and weed seeds.
  • Municipal garden waste collection depots: Alternatively if your municipality doesn’t pick up the waste from your house, you can bring your waste to a central location.
  • Commercial composting services: There are also some commercial compost services that are similar to the municipal programs, but you do pay separately for their services. Some will provide you with a few bags of finished compost in return so this is handy if you don’t compost yourself.
  • Solarizing: By placing the prunings in a black garbage bag, closing it and storing it in full sunshine, you may end up generating enough heat to kill most diseases, pests and weed seeds. And then you can compost the contents. This can be hit or miss so I wouldn’t say it is 100% reliable.
  • Burning: Some municipalities still allow burning of garden waste during the winter months. This is how I remember my dad getting rid of combustibles. Check first to make sure you are allowed to do so, follow recommended safety procedures when burning and strongly consider the effect on the local and global environment before doing so. If other methods are available to you, this should be the last resort.

Soft Prunings

These prunings are usually the easiest to get rid of, as they will breakdown quite readily in a home compost.

It helps to cut them into pieces for quicker decomposing. I will have a future blog post on composting that I’ll like to from this post.

Avoid prunings with flower heads that have gone to seed unless your compost heats up enough to sterilize seeds. We made the mistake a few years in a row throwing our yellow flag iris seedheads into the compost. Now we have them sprouting everywhere in the garden as they are impervious to heat!

So now we throw those into our municipal green bin as mentioned above.

Woody Prunings

These prunings can come from flower bushes like roses, hydrangea and rhododendron. Or they might come from ornamental bushes or even from some of the thicker-stemmed vegetables such as tomatoes or brassicas like broccoli or kale.

While they will eventually break down in a compost, especially if they are cut small, they will take a long time.

So there are a few other choices you have:

  • Municipal green bin: Again most municipalities will accept branches providing they fit in the bin (so some cutting involved) and in some cases up to a certain diameter.
  • Municipal garden waste collection depots: Again if you don’t have a green bin pickup service or you have a large amount of prunings, you can bring it to the depot.
  • Commercial composting services: As above this is another alternative. And sometimes they are good at taking a bit of extra material if you happen to have a lot one month.
  • Tree trimming service: You probably don’t want to hire a company just to get rid of a small pile of prunings. However, if you hire them for a tree trimming or tree removal job or see them at your neighbour’s, you might ask them if you can have them throw your prunings into their shredder.
  • Use for other purposes in your garden: You can use long prunings that are relatively straight for trellising peas and other climbing vegetables and flowers. Saves you money and reuse is always better than recycling.
  • Do your own shredding/chipping: If you want to keep the material in your garden and reuse it, buy or rent a chipper/shredder to reduce the branches down to a useable mulch.

Pruning can be quite intimidating if you are scared of cutting off the wrong branches. With the tips here you should have a bit more confidence now to prune plants without the anxiety you may have felt before.

If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.

Wishing you all the best!

Marc Thoma Signature

Marc Thoma

Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC

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Marc Thoma

Marc is the founder of Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead. He has more than 15 years gardening experience and is working steadily on creating his own urban homestead, trying to be more self-sufficient by growing most of his own vegetables and fruit.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Pruning has always been a source of nightmares for me. Thank you, Marc, for making it so much more understandable!

    1. Yes, it can cause nightmares among many gardeners! Glad I could help clarify it for you.

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