How to Prune Plants and Shrubs?

Pruning plants and shrubs is an important part of keeping your garden healthy, but it can also be a frightening thing for many gardeners to do.

You’ve waited so long to see those plants grow and now you are supposed to cut them back? Most beginner gardeners will avoid pruning their plants out of concern they will do more damage.

Inaction is just as bad, if not worse, than over-pruning. For the best results, you must prune effectively, so we’ve put together five tips on how to prune plants and shrubs like a pro.

Why Should I Prune Plants and Shrubs?

This is a common question for most gardeners, especially beginners. Pruning controls the plant’s shape and size while also removing the dead limbs and branches.

The overall structure and health of a plant improve due to the increase in light and air toward the center of the plant.

It doesn’t make sense to our brain that by removing something we will actually increase, but that is the philosophy behind pruning.

Inside the plant’s terminal buds is a hormone called auxin. The job of auxin is to stop the growth of the lateral buds below it.

Once that is removed, the other buds are free to do their job. When you remove the growing tip, you remove the auxin as well.

Then, the other plant buds are free to grow rapidly. In fact, if there are leaf buds present on a branch, you will normally end up with two or more new branches to replace the one you cut.

How to Prune Plants and Shrubs?

Here are the basic guidelines you want to follow so that your garden can grow beautifully.

Prune at the Right Time

It’s true that there is a time for everything. Each season is a better time to prune some things than others.

Keep in mind that whenever you see a dead or diseased branch, you can prune that.

They must be removed from the plant in order for it to grow properly.

Otherwise, follow these rules: Late Winter or Early Spring – Before new growth begins, you should prune. This doesn’t apply to trees with heavy sap flow.

During this time of year, you would have too high a chance of the sap bleeding out. Wait to handle these trees until summer when the leaves draw the sap past the cut.

Early to Mid-Summer–You can prune after a full leaf expansion but most of the plant’s stored energy was used to grow in spring.

You might be able to stimulate a little more growth, but it could also stress the plant.

Early to Mid-Fall – This is the worst time to prune. Your plants are busy sending nutrients into reserve for the cold months.

You don’t want to re-route that into new growth as it could weaken the plant during the upcoming cold. If you have roses, there is a great video teaching when to prune your flowers:

Use the Right Pruning Tools

For general purposes, there are two varieties of pruners you’ll use.

This Bypass pruning shears blade passes by a non-blade part similar to scissors. Use this for live plant material when you desire a clean cut without crushing the plant.

Anvil pruners – requires extra force to squeeze a limb or branch while the blade passed through the plant. It will stop at the other end of the tool and these are best for cutting dead limbs.

You can also use them if you aren’t concerned about crushing the remaining plant material. For more information on the differences, watch this informative video:

Understand Your Plants and Shrubs

Take time to learn about every plant you have. Then, you’ll have a better understanding of the blooming process with each. For example, some shrubs are going to bloom on new wood.

This creates flowers during the current season’s growth. Some examples of this are the abelia and clethra. You want to prune this type of shrub in late winter so they can produce flowers in the same year.

Other shrubs produce their flowers on old wood from the previous year. If you prune these in the late winter, you could remove the new flower buds without knowing.

Examples of this are the azalea and hydrangea varieties. You want to prune this type of shrub immediately after flowering.

Know Where to Prune

Where you decide to prune is everything. If you make the cut too far from the bud, the new growth will never be stimulated.

If you cut too close to the dormant leaf buds and you could damage them forever. To keep it simple, follow these two simple rules:

Branches with a single bud below the cut point – choose a spot on the branch located a quarter to a half-inch above an outward-facing bud.

Cut your branch at an angle with the higher point facing outward. Stems with buds located in pairs – Cut straight across at no angle. Do this about a half-inch above the budding pair.

How Much to Prune Plants and Shrubs

While this topic could make up an entire blog post on its own, there are some general guidelines that will help. For the majority of plants, you want to prune about one-third of the material.

Measure from the tip and then cut one-third of the branch or less at one time. There are some plants that respond better to major amounts of pruning, but unless you know for sure, you are better to be safe.


Hopefully, you are feeling more confident about your pruning abilities. Just remember that by pruning you are helping your plant, not hurting it.

This is not a skill to be scared of. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become. Eventually, you’ll be a pruning ninja with a full guide on how to prune plants and shrubs.

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