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 when it comes to pruning. However, 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!

Updated 2020: 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 fruit/flower or has started to look seriously misshapen.

How did this happen? Was I a bad plant parent? How can I fix this? Fear not, this is inevitable over time. This is usually the first time people have to think about pruning. The answer is simple; plant pruning.

With a sharp pair of secateurs and a small amount of confidence, I’ll show you how to prune to success! If you 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 depending on the end goal you wish you achieve.

1. Formative Pruning

Formative pruning is used to get a plant, tree or shrub into a particular shape. Think fruit trees or topiary. This is where you prune a shrub, usually when it is young, to form a shape. You can use pruning to encourage growth where you need it and discourage growth in other areas. Usually, the place where you cut will encourage more growth, which can often surprise new gardeners!

2. Maintenance Pruning

Maintenance pruning is used to keep a plant in check, encourage strong plant health and ensure it continues to flower. This is usually done yearly dependant on the plant and desired effect. it’s a more ‘light touch’ pruning style compared to formative pruning. It’s also the easiest to start off with if you’re a new gardener wanting to learn to prune!

Pruning Techniques Explained

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 willingness to give it a go and sharp clean pair of secateurs. 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 plants?

When pruning plants you’re aiming to take out any material that’s going to affect the overall health of vigour of the plant. Whilst plants are normally well behaved, over time they can become congested or become too productive. In this case, you need to remove certain areas of the plant.

You are looking to prune and 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.

A hard prune is where you may 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 old gnarled Pear Tree 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.

What time of year should I prune my 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!

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.

Garden Ninja pruning a plum tree in summer

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

When to prune Evergreen plants

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. Evergreens keep their leaves over winter.

When to prune Deciduous plants

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. Deciduous plants lose their leaves over winter.

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.

Caring for plants & tools 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. There’s no need to feed plants after pruning, you don’t want them to become too comfortable. More often than not gardeners over feed plants meaning that results of pruning are less vigorous as the plant is far too comfortable and not putting out extra growth.

It’s important to always make sure you clean your tools after pruning and make sure they stay sharp. It maybe tempting just to throw the secateurs back into the draw, but spend 5 mins cleaning and sharpening them for years of fuss free pruning.

Pruning Guide Videos

Below is a selection of plant-specific pruning guides. These pruning guides will help you with the three most common shrubs. Whether you’re pruning Hydrangeas, Roses or Cornus these guides will show you exactly how to do it with confidence!

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 to practice pruning shrubs without the dreaded fear.

Why not TweetFacebook or Instagram me with your garden dramas for help and advice. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel for over 100 garden design tips tricks and hacks guides!

Garden Ninjas award winning youtube channel

Happy Gardening!

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