If you study the habits of any gardener who has wonderful looking plants and shrubs, you will know that proper pruning is a key to their success. Done correctly, pruning will add to the beauty of any garden perennial or shrub. But done incorrectly, one might just as well not bother at all. These pruning tips will help you make sure that your shrubs and garden plants will look their best, season after season.
To get the Most out of Garden Plants, Follow these Pruning Tips.
Nature is a great leveler. Plants often go year after year with no actual pruning at all. But at some point, natural pruning does occur. It may be just the fact that higher branches shade lower ones and the nutrients can’t get to the lower areas, resulting in them dying off. It could be that animals will chew on tender shoots too, so that the plant gets shaped in some form. It could be storm damage. Nature has many ways to keep things in check.
But in our gardens, we have to do the work of nature. By knowing when to prune and how with these pruning tips, we can make sure that the plants and shrubs in our gardens will flourish.
1. Why prune?
Before you can make the most out of these pruning tips, you need to know why it is important. Pruning promotes the overall health of a plant and removes dead or diseased parts of it. It encourages flowering and growth and helps to keep plants in your garden to a manageable size.
Pruning also trains the plant to grow as you would like it to. Try to get in the habit of pruning each year. If you let a plant, shrub or tree get overgrown, it can be a huge task to fix the problem, but if you prune regularly, you will be able to keep your yard and plants under control. A good example of why to prune are these two butterfly bushes. One was pruned very early this year before the growth started. The other was not pruned at all until later in the year. Both were the exact same size plant, planted last year. The pruned one on the right is flourishing, and the non pruned one is much smaller and less lush.
It lost out on all the growing time when the bush is sending out new shoots. Both are also planted in exactly the same spacing on my garden bed side so the difference is obvious.
2. Timing is the key.
My husband now says that he wishes that he had read my pruning tips last year instead of now! Not all plants are pruned at the same time of the year. If they were, we could just follow a schedule and clip away. Some plants like to be pruned before flowering, but some like it after. Some like to have a snip in the fall, and some in early spring. Some are shed their flowers naturally and some need deadheading to look their best. (If you hate this job, be sure to check out these plants that don’t need deadheading.)
Also, most new trees and shrubs should not be trimmed for the year after planting, unless you have broken or damaged branches. And some shrubs really do not like to be pruned at all (ask my husband who gave our Red Bush a big trim….he is STILL talking about how he killed it!) I have seen other red bushes around the city in the same state. They really do not like to be cut back.
3. Tools for pruning.
No list of pruning tips would be complete without some ideas for the correct tools to use. There are several types of tools that can be used for pruning tasks. No one tool will do it all and most are used because of the type of limb, branch or shoot being trimmed. Some popular pruning tools that would be used by the casual gardener are:
- Hand pruners. These are best used for small branches, no bigger than 1/2″ in size. Most small plants, perennials and annuals will be pruned with these tools. This is the tool that I use most of the time so I make sure to have a durable set on hand. These Bypass pruning shears from Planted Perfect were a great addition to my tool chest this year. (affiliate link) They are razor sharp with a 2 3/4″ cutting blade made of high carbon steel. The shears are easy to use and comfortable in the hand too.
- Lopping shears. These pruners have much longer handles and a bigger pruning head area. They are perfect for medium sized branches up to about 2″ in diameter. They give a larger cut without the need for a saw and the long handles make them idea for pruning branches in trees that are not too tall. Sometimes, the canes of shrubs can be long and thick, as is the case when I prune forsythia. Lopping shears come in really handy then.
- Pole Pruners. Also known as long reach pruners. These handy tools are a combination of a lopper and saw all in one with a pull rope to aid with the branches. They have a cutter with a hooked blade above and a cutting blade below. The cutter is on a pole and operated by pulling a rope in a downward direction. These can be dangerous to use, so care should be taken when using them.
- Hedge Trimmers. These trimmers have longer handles and long blades too. They are perfect for trimming hedges. They come in both manual and electric versions.
- Pruning saws. Larger branches and trees will normally require the use of folding saws or bow saws.
4. Pruning Cuts.
One of my pruning tips that can often be ignored is not pruning correctly. Pruning is more than just taking your tool and cutting a branch off. Where you place the cut matters and how you make it matters too. Keep in mind the shape of the plant when you make the cut and how the branch will grow after it is cut.
I normally try to make sure that the new branches will grow out, after the cut is made, not inward towards the center of the plant, while still making a few cuts to be sure the center stays filled in. This results in a nicely shaped bush. Cut with the blade on the inside of the tool for best results.
The slant of the cut is important too. 45 º cuts are considered very good for the plant. They do a better job of allowing new growth to develop, and are also less likely to allow decay to set into the cut area from water sitting on the cut.
5. Where to make the cut.
Try not to cut too close to a new bud. If you prune too closely, the bud will wither and die. If you make the cut too far away from the bud, you will end up with wood above it that will die and look unsightly. About 1/2″ is good spacing for most shrubs.
6. Should you trim the top of the plant?
If you have a plant with a single stem and you trim the top of it, you will encourage side branching but will limit the total height of the plant, or shrub. Keep this in mind before lopping off the top, or you may end up with a smaller plant than you are looking for.
In the image below, a single trunk is cut off half way up the trunk. Branches will form on both sides and the tree will be much bushier but also much smaller. It is important to remember this before you cut a single trunk. If you want a lower tree that is bushier, cut the single step. If you want a taller tree, prune the side shoots instead.
7. Thinning plants.
Many shrubs benefit from an overall thinning of them. This means cutting off branches close to the soil area inside the plant. This will let the remaining branches flourish without being too crowded. I do this to my hydrangeas each year and they seem to get more and more lush as the seasons progress.
8. When to prune flowering shrubs.
This is perhaps the most important of my pruning tips. If you do this task at the wrong time, you may lose your flowers that year. Most flowering shrubs are best pruned right after flowering. Doing so will allow the buds for next year’s flowers to form and will result in a lovely show the following year.
If you wait until too late in the season to prune, you will be removing many flower buds and your shrubs will have fewer flowers the following year. I prune my Azaleas, forsythia and rhododendrons each year in the spring right after they flower, and they give me a magnificent show each year. This forsythia was part of ONE bush that my neighbor dug up and was going to discard two years ago. We rescued it and chopped the clump into 6 pieces. Careful pruning each spring right after flower has produced 6 HUGE bushes along my side fence line that do a pretty good job of hiding the unsightly chain fence. Check out how they looked in the early spring this year!
Some larger shrubs that bloom late in the season, such as crape myrtles, butterfly bushes and hydrangeas are pruned later. These are best pruned late in the season to have the most healthy growth next year. (but the same rule apples – after flowering!) This crape myrtle tree was enormous last year and had never been pruned. We did the job late last year by cutting it down to a little less than 1/2 its size. The tree is lush and full this year and is a much more manageable size that fits the area of the garden so much better.
9. How much should I prune?
When I talk to others about my pruning tips, this is and often asked question, but it is difficult to answer, since it depends a lot on the plant. I try to stick to no more than 1/3-1/2 of the plant just to be safe. (I usually stick to 1/3.)
I did prune my box woods this year by more than 3/4 of their size because they were so overgrown and were dwarfing my front entry. But, in this case, I did not care if I lost them. I just wanted to open up my entry area and if they had died, I would have dug them up and replanted smaller ones.
(I would not suggest this unless you are prepared to lose the bush. Glad to say, mine are growing just fine and I now have a front step that is not so crowded!)
10. Removing Old canes of flowering shrubs.
Hydrangeas and forsythias send up new canes from their base each year and the old canes can be unsightly, especially for hydrangeas. To control the size of these, just remove the oldest canes, which are also the thickest ones, on the plant.
In the example below, most of the canes can be removed and the plant will do just fine without them even though there are buds on the canes.
11. Rose Bushes.
My roses are prolific. I get hundreds of roses on them and they repeat all summer long and into the fall here in NC, so they keep me busy. I start pruning in the spring just after the last frost to get the bush to a manageable size and then I prune to dead head all summer long on the higher branches. When you first prune in the spring, follow these tips:
- remove any dead or damaged branches that you find. They are easy to spot because the color of the branch is a different color and is very dry looking compared to the healthy branches. You can either cut off the entire cane, or if there is some healthy growth below the dead part, trim it above a healthy bud.
- Trim away suckers that form at the base so that the nourishment for the bush stays in the main stems. This rose bush is very large and has some generous sized canes, but I trim away all of the small suckers that form to keep the size and condition manageable.
- The number of canes that you leave will determine the size of the overall plant later in the spring.
12. Pruning Tips for Hedges.
Try to keep the top of the hedge slightly smaller than the bottom so that the lower branches are not shaded. You can shear the hedge up to about 6 weeks before your first frost, but then you should stop to allow protection of longer growth during the winter. Many bushes can be trimmed into hedges.
This holly hedge was three large bushes that were very round in shape until last year. We trimmed it half way last year and then cut it down another half this year and it makes a great looking hedge.
13. Pruning Vines.
Overgrown vines such as wisteria and trumpet vines can become very unsightly if they are not pruned each year. Remove straggly growth but leave the vines that will climb. Cut off the top of the vines to encourage more side shoots and a fuller plant. It is safe to prune 1/3 to 1/2 of most vines without hurting the overall plant.
14. Care of Pruning tools.
You won’t have great luck in your pruning chores if you don’t take care of your tools. They should be cleaned and oiled regularly. You can do this by wiping an oily cloth onto the blades and metal surfaces. Keep the cutting edges sharp by running them over a few times on a good oil stone. Treat the wooden handles with linseed oil and repaint or varnish them if necessary. Use them as they are intended. Don’t cut wire with pruning tools and be sure to use the right size tool for the job so as not to strain the parts. See more tips for caring for your tools. Follow these pruning tips this year and you will make sure that your plants, shrubs and hedges are the talk of the neighborhood!
Note: I received a pair of these bypass pruning shears from Planted Perfect in exchange for reviewing them as a part of this blog post. I recommend them highly. I have fairly large hands and they fit my hands perfectly and are comfortable and easy to use. The owner of the company has a great opportunity for my readers too.