Pruning is often one of the most daunting garden tasks. What if I cut off too much? Which parts do I take off? What if I make a mess? All are common concerns. Pruning is fundamental to healthy plant growth and flowering. Over time you will certainly need to prune plants so here's my speedy guide to fool proof pruning!

We have all been there as new gardeners, watching your plants grow and get bigger each year, caring for their every need to be rewarded with flowers or gorgeous foliage. Then there is that moment, you don’t know when it happened but you look at the plant no longer looks full of the joys of spring. The plant in question either fails to flower, looks like it’s gone ‘leggy’ or just looks misshapen. How did this happen, was I a bad plant parent? How to prune it back to life?

Fear not, this is inevitable over time. This is usually the first time people have to think about pruning. With a sharp pair of secateurs and a small amount of confidence, I’ll show you how to prune to success! (Need to quickly learn how to prune, watch my 60-second guide below)

Why prune plants?

Plants over time will grow taller and wider up to their predetermined size for that plant species. When they are young they put all their effort into growth to maximise the chances of survival and then reproduction. They will flower profusely, send out new growth and basically let the good times roll!

As they get older and larger they are still having to feed and gather water for the plant. Which means they have to share out their resources more. This can result in parts of the plant become unproductive. Without pruning plants will eventually flower less and have old dead wood appearing. This is where pruning is required.

You have two main types of pruning

  1. Formative pruning – to get a plant, tree or shrub into a shape. Think fruit free or topiary.
  2. Maintenance pruning – to keep a plant in check, keep it healthy and ensure it continues to flower.

Pruning Techniques

The technique for pruning is the same for 99% of plants and could not be simpler. However, I think a lot of people get scared of pruning as they feel at odds that they have been feeding and looking after a plant to then go and cut parts of it back. Trust me, you’re doing your plants a favour. Pruning will then spur the plant on to flower for profusely and get its vigour back. It’s like giving most plants red bull!

All you need to prune effectively is the wilingness to give it a go and sharp clean pair of seceteurs. They don’t need to be the most expensive but keeping them clean and sharp will ensure cleaner pruning cuts. This in turn will result in better results.

Garden Ninja holding Niwaki secateurs
I opt for these razor-sharp Japanese secateurs but you can pick up a decent off the shelf pair for under £10.

How to prune: step by step guide

The one simple pruning rule is to cut just above a bud (ie a node that will create a flower or fruit, at an angle away from the bud. That’s it!

Showing how to prune a camellia shrub

This should then leave up to 1cm of the old-growth just above the new bud as seen below. The reason why you cut at an angle away from a bud is to allow any water to run off as not to let the next bud become waterlogged and potentially rot. It will also keep the cut clean.

Garden Ninja pruning a Camellia shrub by hand
Clean tools are essential for pruning

It really is that simple and this rule applies to nearly all plants. So you work out how much you want to cut back, usually to the next bud down or a 1/3 of the overall stem. Then cut at an angle like above with a clean sharp pair of secateurs, simple!

A neatly pruned camellia shrub
Perfect Pruning Cut on a Camellia

You follow this rule on the entire plant removing sections of it to get it back into shape or tidy up its appearance. People often worry about pruning that they’re going to kill the plant in pruning it. It would take a lot more than that to kill most plants. As long as you take your time and are uniform in the way you prune, ie do the entire shrub so its a similar size then you can’t go too wrong!

What to remove when pruning?

When pruning you’re aiming to take out any material that’s going to affect the overall health of vigour of the plant. You are looking to remove any material that is:

  • Dead
  • Diseased
  • Crossing/rubbing
  • Overgrown / out of habit
A neatly pruned rose of Garden Ninjas
Keep all pruning cuts neat and at an angle away from the next bud or leaf down

Look at all these overgrown crossing stems below. Often you find this when you inherit a garden and there’s been zero pruning. My advice is to take your time and slowly remove branches one by one. Old fruit trees and shrubs respond really well to a hard prune. Where you will need to take off 2/3 of the growth. It may feel brutal but sometimes it’s the only way and the plant will return with even greater vigour in the next year,

A tangled mess of branches that need pruning
This could take some time but will be well worth it!

Diseased or dead wood may be due to damage or badly pruned stems. Always remove this to stop any disease spreading. You can see the example below of a dark brittle dead branch on a Rhododendron. Snip them off as soon as possible to prevent any spread of plant disease.

An azalea that has just been pruned
Poorly pruned Rhododendron leads to deadwood. See the brown crispy tips of the deadwood?

Winter is usually a good time for pruning wood specimens as the leaves will have fallen you can see the true framework of the plant. It’s always best to prune roses in Winter to keep them in a productive neat structure.

Garden Blogger Lee Burkhill pruning roses
Winter is an ideal time for pruning deciduous plants and shrubs as you can clearly see the framework.

Time of year for various plants

Here comes the real tricky part of pruning, when to prune each plant in your garden. The easy answer is to check the RHS website to see when pruning is required. Usually, a plant either needs pruning in early spring or when they are dormant. Even if you end up pruning at the wrong time of year, don’t worry. It’s highly unlikely you will kill your plants. The worst case is they may not flower that year or fruit!

How to prune a Cprnus shrub by Garden Ninja
Pruning a dogwood, just above a bud

There are all sorts of subcategories for pruning Clematis, Wisteria, Roses to name a few. These plants will all have very specific pruning regimes. Maybe this is where the prune fear comes from! If in doubt check with the nursery or online. The technique is still the same!

With that worry aside, there are a few simple rules that will help you work out when to prune if you’re not sure.

Evergreen pruning

Prune in early spring for specimen shrubs so that they can recover from during the spring/summer season. This is especially true for slow-growing evergreen plants such as Rhododendrons. Examples of evergreens would be Holly (Ilex aquifolium), Photinia, Rhododendrons etc. You can also prune late summer for a cleaner winter cut on hedges which are more resilient than evergreen specimen shrubs.

Deciduous pruning

Prune when dormant, in winter (with the exception of Cherry trees which should only be pruned in the spring due to infection and silver leaf). Examples of deciduous plants would be Buddleja, Apple trees, Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush) etc.

Here’s my guide for winter pruning deciduous plants and trees with some examples

Pruning Herbaceous Perennials

You can either prune herbaceous perennials in either late Autumn or late Winter depending on your preference. The great thing with clearing herbaceous perennials is that for 90% of them you just cut them back down to the ground.

Herbaceous pruning is the easiest group to deal with! Hack and Slash!

Pruning for garden design

Pruning can help keep your plants, trees and shrubs in a more garden design-friendly state. By keeping them well pruned you can help influence their shape and habit. This means that you can control certain shrubs and trees to dictate their overall shape. Whether you want clipped topiary, for example, an espalier apple tree or a standard bay tree; pruning will enable you to achieve all sorts of shapes.

It is worth bearing in mind the amount of time you want your garden design to take up. Pruning can be a considerable effort depending on the level of control you want over your garden plants. Formal garden designs, like the one below, can look incredible. However, you may be out day and night pruning and clipping to keep the look.

Lee Burkhill Award Winning Garden Designer standing in a topiary maze
Imagine pruning all this?!

Hard pruning versus maintenance pruning

Hard pruning may be required if you have a really out of shape or old shrub. Pruning hard enables you to remove a considerable portion of the plant, sometimes up to half, to return it to a manageable size. It also allows the plant to regenerate, this is especially true where old plants have grown tall whilst losing lower foliage or a shrub that’s simply stopped flowering.

A photinia sending out new growth
Hard pruning of a Photinia

This may seem drastic but sometimes a hard prune is the only way to save your plants from turning into barren twigs or unproductive skeletons. It’s usually best done as early in the season for evergreens or when dormant in deciduous plants. Be bold and brave as Monty Don would say. Hard prune back until your shrub or tree is in a more manageable size.

There you have it a simple guide to pruning. Not only will this help keep your garden looking tidy, but it also helps keep plants in the best condition. By taking off a small amount you can start tp practice pruning shrubs without the dreaded fear.

Caring for plants after pruning

A good tip after pruning is to always mulch and ensure the plant is well watered. This ensures that nutrients and water are available for all that new growth! Why not share this article to help others to overcome the fear of pruning! If you have questions why not comment or get in touch?

Why not TweetFacebook or Instagram me with your garden dramas for help and advice.

Happy Gardening!

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