Pruning of trees and shrubs can help them stay within a certain size limit to fit the confines and aesthetics of a garden space. More importantly, pruning encourages fuller plants – thus more foliage for photosynthesis, more blooms to attract pollinators, more fruits for you and any creatures you share them with. A good clip here and there can also remove diseased areas and help avoid future issues by allowing more air flow through the plant. This is best done with respect for the plant’s natural growth habit and size – which was hopefully taken into consideration when the plants were chosen and placed.
The following general guidelines apply to the majority of woody, landscape trees and shrubs. These tips are specific to the pruning of individual shoots or branches and not to shearing, which involves the removal of multiple branch tips with each clip or pass of the tool – think English garden hedge. Spring flowering plants are best pruned right after flowering. Those that flower in summer or autumn are best pruned in late winter or very early spring.
How and Where to Start
Pruning cuts, where full branches are not being removed, should be made about ¼ to ½” above a leaf node (the spot where a leaf emerges from the stem) or branch axil. This will encourage branching from said node, so be mindful to make your cuts where they will aim growth in a direction that will create a pleasing balance with the rest of the existing and future stems. Additionally, the snip is best made at an angle, with the cut edge facing the interior of the plant so as to be less visible.
The place to start is always with dead, damaged or diseased branches. This should be followed by the removal of any water sprouts (branches that shoot straight up rather than following the natural branching habit of the plant). After this you’ll want to step back and look for any crossing/rubbing branches and remove them, with thought to not leaving any huge holes. If there seems to be an overabundance of branches in any particular area these can be removed as well, to facilitate healthy air flow through the interior.
Lastly, you may also wish to trim back around the full perimeter of the plant to reduce its size and encourage lush outer growth to conceal the more open interior.
If a plant has been un-pruned and looking it, for some time, you may need to pace out restorative pruning over several years – not removing more than one third of its growth at a time. Or, depending on the plant and your concern for appearances, you may be able to cut it back to within 3 to 12” of the ground and give it a fresh start.
The most common tools for home pruning would be hand pruners for branches 2/3” diameter or less, loppers – which give long handled leverage to cut thicker and/or tougher branches, and a pruning saw for the largest branches. There are of course multiple styles of all of these tools and a bit of research or questioning of fellow gardeners can help in deciding which would be your best fit.