How to Prune Plants Easily and Effectively: Part 1

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.

prune plants

A lot of tasks in gardening add to the garden. 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 pruning trees and bushes 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.

In this post I will cover what tools you will need, what foliage to prune and when to prune plants. Part 2 will cover how to prune, special plant considerations and what to do with your prunings.

A separate post will be forthcoming on how to prune trees, especially fruit trees when I get to that task later this winter.

Pruning Tools

Note that the links provided in this section are Amazon affiliate links. I earn a small commission on all sales. If you purchase tools using these links, you will help support the blog at no extra cost to you.

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.

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.

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.

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 always a good buy with lots of choice.

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.

Once you have these tools, it is important to maintain them properly, especially your pruners. Check out the supplemental post Quick Tip: Maintain Pruners for more information.

 

What To Prune

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.

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.

google image search diseased stems

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

First you need to get rid of any crossing branches. These are branches that start on one side of the plant and cross through it to the other side. 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.

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.

More info will be provided in Part 2 under the How section.

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 you prune will also affect next year’s blooms. In Part 2 I cover a bit more about how to prune flowering plants to avoid removing all the buds.

Here is the full list of posts in this pruning series:

 

Share in the comments what is keeping you from pruning your plants. Do you have any plants in particular you are not clear on how to prune properly? I will try and cover those plants in Part 2 and/or respond to your comment.

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