Do you break out in a cold sweat when you need to prune plants in the garden? It is not as scary as you think and you can learn how to prune properly.
In this post we’ll continue looking at pruning, including how to prune, special plant considerations and what to do with the prunings in terms of cleanup.
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.
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 Quick Tip: 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 in the What to Prune section in Part 1
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:
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 in Part 1 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.
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.
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.
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! Now we throw those into our municipal green bin as mentioned in the previous section.
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.
That’s it for now for pruning info. When I prune my fruit trees sometime this month, I will write a post specific to pruning trees.
Here is the full list of posts in this pruning series:
- How to Prune Plants Easily and Effectively: Part 1
- How to Prune Plants Easily and Effectively: Part 2
- Quick Tip: Maintain Pruners
Let me know in the comments how you make out with pruning, especially if it is your first time.