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Pruning Basics by Clint Covell

Pruning Basics

Clint Covell, Woodland Gardens

Why Prune?

Plants will live, grow, and bear fruit without ever being pruned, but good pruning and some training can prevent or remedy many of the problems that arise in most plants. Pruning is probably best viewed as the most effective means to head off trouble, improve your plants' performance, and keep them in excellent condition.

Pruning shapes plants not only by removing stems, branches, and leaves, but also by inducing and directing new growth. All plants have a bud at the base of every leaf. New shoots grow from these buds. Cutting off the end of a stem encourages the buds below the cut to shoot out and produce a bushier plant. This type of pruning makes a hedge branch out and fill in and gives an otherwise lanky sprawling perennial or shrub a better shape.

If you're unsure where to begin, remember that you can't hurt a plant by cutting out dead, diseased, or damaged wood, or wood that crosses and rubs against other wood (which can cause wounds that become susceptible to infection). On the contrary, you'll be doing a great deal of good. Eliminating these problems is the place to start for inexperienced and experienced pruners alike. It will provide a clearer view of the tree and of the remaining work to be done and it will open up the tree to more air and light.


Every job should be started using the right tools. Commonly used tools are hand pruners, lopping shears, pruning saws, pole pruners, and hedge shears. Use sharp pruning tools to make clean cuts without tearing the wood or bark.

Pruning Methods & Cuts

There are three types of pruning methods:

Selective pruning: Removing or cutting back individual shoots in order to refine the shape of a shrub, maintain its vigor, or limit its size.

Severe pruning: To cut away most of a shrub's top growth, leaving just short stubs or a gnarly trunk.

Shearing: Using hedge shears or an electric hedge trimmer to shape the surface of a shrub, hedge, or tree and produce a smooth, solid mass of greenery.

There are two types of pruning cuts:

Thinning cuts: Removes wood and puts an end to growth. All thinning cuts are to the base of the branch or sucker so that there are no buds left to sprout new growth.

Heading cuts: The process of shortening a branch, not removing it entirely. Buds on the remaining portion of wood are stimulated to grow when growth above them is removed.

The Steps of Pruning

Always make cuts close to a node. Branches grow only at these nodes, and if you leave too long a stub beyond the node, the stub will die and rot. Be sure to cut at a slight angle so that there is no straight "shoulder" left to attract disease or burrowing pests.

Remove any dead or damaged branches and any twigs or limbs that are very spindly or weak.

Prune any suckers growing from the roots, stems, or branches. Suckers take away from the vigor of a shrub and don't add favorably to its form.

If a new sprout is growing in toward the center of the tree or toward the trunk or threatening to tangle with another branch when it grows longer, pinch it off now to save pruning later. If you see the bud of a sucker down near the soil, rub it off with your thumb.

Where two limbs cross over or rub against each other, save one limb (usually the thicker, stronger one) and prune off the other one.

To direct a branch or stem, cut it back to a bud pointing in the direction in which you want to encourage growth. This technique is useful for shaping young trees and shrubs and for keeping their centers open to light and air.

Prune or widen narrow crotches. Places where a branch and trunk or two branches form a narrow V are weak spots, liable to split apart as the tree grows. Where the trunk of a young tree exhibits such a crotch or where either of two shoots could continue the growth of a branch, prune off the weaker of the two. Where you wish to keep the branch, insert a piece of wood as a spacer to widen the angle. Leave the spacer in place for a year or so.
Note: When you cut away part of a plant, a wound is left, susceptible to pests and diseases. To avoid trouble, always try to make wounds as small as possible. The smallest possible wound is made by removing a bud or twig.