Don’t Let Pruning Get you Down

With this sensible advice, you’ll soon prune with certainty and verve.

| February/March 2004


The old folksong, Wild Mountain Thyme has in the chorus “We will all go together to pull wild mountain thyme.” We wince at that line because pulling the thyme will kill it. The Herbin’ League trio (a group of old-time folk musicians hailing from the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas) changed the lyric to “…cut wild mountain thyme.” But some herb gardeners are afraid to do even a small amount of judicious pruning, often out of a fear that the plant will be harmed. Education is the key: Once we understand how plants function and the reasons for pruning, it is easier to sharpen the tools and get to work.

We harvest herbs during the growing season just as the flower buds are formed because the plant oils are at their peak. Deadheading flowers improves the look of ornamental plants and often extends the bloom time. If we are preserving annual and biennial herbs such as basil, chervil, cilantro, dill and parsley, we cut them before the plants flower. Whether pruning for harvest or plant health, we prune before autumn so new growth has time to harden off before a hard freeze.

Herbs need pruning for purposes other than human consumption, so don’t feel guilty. Diseases and pests are controlled with proper pruning techniques. We need to prune to control rampant growth or shape plants in a formal or stylized garden. Heavy pruning is best done in winter for deciduous plants and spring for evergreen plants. Avoid pruning herbs when new leaves are budding in spring or old leaves are falling off in autumn. It is best not to prune during times of drought.

Root pruning is performed on plants to increase health and vigor or to transplant from one location to another. We don’t do this all of the time or with all of our plants, but only when the plants need it. Overall, plant growth is always more vigorous in the spring, but roots of perennial plants are active year round. Pruning the roots when the soil is warm and deeply moist is the ideal condition for new root growth — not too cold nor too hot, and moist enough to sprout but not dry out. The idea of root pruning is to encourage the feeder roots to grow.

Visualize plant physiology

Plants have a vascular system, like human blood vessels, that transports water, minerals, sugar, growth-regulating hormones and nutrients throughout the plant, supporting its life. Like our vascular system, fluids move in two directions through different sets of tubes and pipes. These tubes and pipes are bundled together just under the skin (dermal tissue) of the roots and stems.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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