For most gardeners, taking sharp scissors to their precious plants is sometimes painful. Pruning is a very intimate practice between the gardener and the plant. Most plants benefit from some sort of regular pruning and maintenance. When a gardener sits down to prune, they’re helping the plant reach its fullest potential. Understand that, although taking away parts of the plant might seem damaging, you are actually working with the plant to help direct its energy more efficiently to valuable sections.
Thinning cuts: Thinning cuts remove entire branches or limbs all the way to its origin to create better air circulation or to reduce crowded conditions. If there are any side shoots on the branches further down the base of the plant, you can prune a few of these shoots. Always make thinning cuts to just above a dormant bud. Cut at a slight angle and leave about 1⁄4 inch (0.6 cm) of the shoot above the bud — not a long stub. Prune back half of the longest branches on the plant.
Heading cuts: Heading cuts shorten branches or stems but don’t remove them entirely. Check the plant for any stems that are unusually long. They may appear loose or straggling, falling off different areas of the plant. Pruning leggy stems will help the plant to grow in a fuller, more even pattern.
Pinching: You pinch soft growth between your thumb and forefinger. Pinching is handy with soft annuals and perennials, but also good for larger plants, if you do it early enough when their shoots are still young and soft. Pinch above the node, which is the growing point where the leaf is attached to the plant. Pinching off the stems can help maintain the bushy shape of the plant and encourage even growth. It also helps to prevent the growth of leggy stems.
Shearing: For this cut, use scissorlike pruning “shears” to keep hedge lines straight and neat. Boxwood and yews are commonly sheared.
Use sharp scissors or garden shears. Buy the best tools you can afford. They will pay for themselves in the long run. Good quality tools stay sharp longer and cut easier. Keep your tools sharpened. A sharp pruner is not just easier to cut with, it also makes a cleaner cut that heals faster. And it puts less stress on your hand. Keep your pruning tools clean. One pruning cut on a diseased branch can spread disease throughout your garden. Wipe the blade clean with rubbing alcohol. Always clean your tools before putting them away. If you notice any dirt on the shears, soak them in water with a teaspoon of bleach and then wipe them dry. A clean tool will ensure your plants are not exposed to bacteria or pests when you prune them.
Prune the plants at the beginning of their growing season. If you have houseplants that do not flower, prune them in late winter. For houseplants with flowers or blooms, wait until they have bloomed before you prune them. Do not prune houseplants when unopened buds are present on the stems.
Remove dead leaves and limbs. Look for any leaves or limbs on the plant that are brown or discolored. They may also appear limp or dry. Use the shears to cut them off just below the brown or dead area at a 45-degree angle. If a large section of the leafy area appears dead, you can cut off the entire branch. Leave the main stem intact and remove branches shooting off of the stem. For branches that are ailing or dead, the best practice is to make a cut about 6 inches into live, healthy wood. Some diseases spread within a plant; by cutting off the diseased part, you stop the advance of the disease.
Trim off any dead flowers. If you have houseplants that are flowering, make sure you check for and remove any dead flowers. The flowers may appear brown, discolored, and limp. They may also feel dry to the touch. Cut the dead flowers off with the shears at the base of the flower’s head. Removing dead and dying flowers on a plant will encourage the growth of newer, more vibrant blooms.
Remove any wounds. To keep your plants in top condition, inspect your trees and shrubs regularly for dead branches, broken branches, and branches that are rubbing together. Wounds from such branches expose irregular surfaces that take longer to heal than clean cuts, leaving prime entry points for pests and disease. It’s best to prune them as soon as you notice them.
Optional But Recommended Pruning
Cut all branches and shoots that are not directly connected to the main stem. As branches grow out from the main stalk of the plant, they will develop shoots and branches of their own. However, these extra branches will struggle to get enough light while continuing to take energy away from the leaves located at the ends of the main branch. Trim these leaves and shoots away.
Remove “sucker” branches. Suckers are vigorous vertical stems that ruin a tree’s appearance. Both types of suckers—water sprouts, which originate in branches, and root sprouts, which grow around the base of trees—appear on fruit trees. Water sprouts create too much shade within the crown (the middle portion) of a tree and are slow to flower or fruit. Root sprouts compete with and eventually overgrow, tree trunks. If a tree is grafted, root sprouts will never have the desired form, leaves, fruits, or flowers of the grafted section.
The best way to remove suckers is to get them while they’re young (under ¼ inch in diameter) and during the early part of the growing season. Simply grab them and give a sharp yank sideways, ripping them away at their growing point. If the suckers are too old to yank off, they must be cut off as close to the growing point as possible. If a sucker is not removed all the way back to its growing point, new suckers will grow from the base of the old one.
Quality budding plants grow where the plant receives the most sunlight and airflow, which means anywhere on the outside of the plant. The top, in particular, is where you want the plant’s energy focused. To do so, you want to remove the following:
- Low-down branches that receive little sunlight
- Leaves that are dying off because of lack of light
- Bud sites that are low down on the plant’s main stalks
Remove only 10-20% of the plant’s foliage at a time. Do not over prune the plant, as this can make it difficult for it to grow properly. Make selective cuts to the plant. Wait a few weeks to one month to prune the plants again. Always leave some foliage on the plant when you prune. If you are in doubt, under prune the plant and then reevaluate it a few weeks later.
Fertilize the plants after pruning. Use soluble, all-purpose fertilizer like Complete Hydroponics on the plant after you prune it. Dilute the fertilizer in water so it does not burn the plant. Apply the fertilizer according to the instructions on the label.
Wipe dust or dirt off the leaves. Houseplants with wide, large leaves can accumulate dust and dirt. Maintain the houseplants by using a damp sponge or rag to wipe off the dust and dirt. Do this on a regular basis so the plants stay vibrant.
- Always use a new sponge or rag on each plant so pests are not transferred from one plant to another.
Re-root your plant cuttings. To do this, simply place the healthy cuttings of trimmed plants (trimmed plant cuttings should have at least two inches of stem growth below the leaves) in a glass or vase with water that is close to room temperature. Water in the vase should cover at least an inch of the bottom portion of the plant. Roots will begin to appear in about a week and the cutting will be ready to replant in approximately one month. The newly rooted mini plant may be added to the pot of the mother plant it was clipped from or it can be re-potted as a brand new plant.