A Guide to Pruning Plants

Use our plant pruning guide to improve your plants’ health and appearance—without harming them.

  • Pruning plants is often more art than science, but it keeps our plants healthy and looking fresh.
    Photo by Veer
  • Deadheading—or removing dead flowers—can lengthen plants’ bloom time.
    Photo by GAP Photos
  • Lightly pruning shrubs helps them grow fuller. Trim long stems by cutting at an angle just above a healthy bud.
    Photo by iStock

Pruning is more art than science. It’s a relaxing practice that allows us to get up close and personal with our plants, do a close inspection and prevent problems later on. Think of pruning as tough love for plants. Plants are rarely harmed by the practice, and most will grow better and stay healthier with a proper bit of cutting back.

There are many reasons to prune, says Tracy DiSabato-Aust, whose book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is the definitive text on the topic. (Her website also includes instructional pruning videos and plenty of helpful information.) “Much of it depends on your objective,” she says. “We prune to create more compact plants that don’t require staking. We prune to have plants that are fuller throughout the summer so they don’t develop that melt-out hole that sometimes develops in spring-flowering plants. We prune preemptively to delay flowering. We prune for pest and disease control, and we prune to do general garden cleanup. And we’ll dead-head for a repeat bloom. Sometimes we can prolong flowering for two months.”

Pruning Terminology 101

Pruning is an overall term that might be referred to as grooming, shaping, shearing or snipping. “Cutting back” or “shearing” generally refers to removing foliage and flowers to control height or flowering time. Minnesota garden consultant Lila Stanley cuts back plants as soon as there are more dead flowers than fresh ones. This pruning will cause the plants to branch out and increase the number of blooms even though they bloom a little later.

“Pinching” or “pinching off” is a technique that helps plants develop a fuller form by forcing them to focus on growing more new stems rather than taller ones. To pinch a plant, pinch off a main stem down to just above the leaf nodes you want to keep. This should cause the stem to replace itself with two stems. Stanley pinches the new growth on mums prior to July Fourth to create offshoots for more blooms and a rounder shape.

“Shearing” ornamental grasses usually means cutting them back to just above the ground. DiSabato-Aust shears ornamental grasses down to 2 inches off the ground in the spring.

“Deadheading” is the removal of old or spent dead flowers.  “Deadheading refreshes a plant’s appearance, controls seed dispersal, and redirects a plant’s energy from seed production to root and vegetative growth,” DiSabato-Aust says. “I do it primarily to prolong the bloom period or encourage a second flush of blooms on some perennials. For most plants, however, all you need to remember is to prune spent flowers and stems back to a point where there’s a new lateral flower or bud. If no new flower is apparent, prune the stem back to a lateral leaf.”

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