Each morning I walk our dogs through the semi-wild parts of our wooded property. There I encounter various trees, shrubs, ground cover, mosses, lichens, and a seemingly infinite variety of fungi. What beautiful complexity exists in this woodland ecosystem.
Yet, as a gardener, I can’t help but notice the diseased limbs on otherwise healthy trees. My attention is drawn to the anthracnose stricken leaves on overcrowded mountain laurel. Then there’s the parasitic mistletoe hanging high in more than a few branches — a slow, menacing death sentence for a weak tree.
The shelf fungus on a large oak is a surefire sign that tree will become a fall hazard soon. The sheer number of tent caterpillars defoliating young trees captivate even as they devastate.
Oh, and how can I not feel a pang of sympathy for those spindly saplings stretching hopelessly to touch sunlight with their sparse leaf tips.
The Gardener’s Instinct
If only I could remove those dead branches, cut away the parasitic mistletoe, and eradicate the anthracnose-blackened leaves to improve airflow. Perhaps I should rip open a few of those caterpillar tents so birds can feast. I ought to fell that fungi-infested tree by a safe path to save other trees from being taken down by it’s mighty fall.
If I could just prune out the “problems” I see in nature’s garden, this forest could be as radiantly beautiful — to my gardener’s eye — as any cultivated landscape.
Nature’s Pruning Methods
Of course, there’s no way I can take care of my 8 wild acres of dense forest with my pruners, loppers, and hand saw. Plus what absolute arrogance to imagine that I ought to!
Truth be told, the landscape I described isn’t unmanaged. It’s just managed differently — over a much longer time frame. Nature prunes landscapes with a lot more drama, suspense, and fanfare than we gardeners do with our warpspeed garden tools.
- Diseases and parasites weakens plants.
- Wind breaks off branches.
- Anthracnose defoliates and eventually improves airflow.
- Weather fluctuations force plants to grow strong or die slow.
- Fire burns away brittle, unbending plants to nourish new life.
- Bacteria, fungi, insects, and more devour and decay the deceased and diseased.
Natural systems are messy, chaotic, disastrous, abundant, and far more complicated than we can fully comprehend in our short human lifespans. Rich with life, death, gradual decay, utter devastation, renewal, and regrowth — natural landscapes are our teachers.
That’s why it’s incredibly important that we allow some natural systems to manage themselves, as I do with those 8 acres I roam through daily. Yet, when we cultivate a garden, this is our conscious attempt to manipulate nature for our purposes on a human timescale.
Pruning Cultivated Plants
We don’t have nature’s eons to shape and hone our home landscapes. We need results in weeks, months, or years depending on the plant. So, we prune for immediate results.
Our goals are the following.
- Remove dead or diseased plant material to prevent pathogen spread (e.g. fire blighted apple branches).
- Increase airflow to reduce the risk for fungal pathogens (e.g. brown rot in stone fruits like peaches or plums).
- Allow light to reach the lower branches for overall plant health (e.g. Japanese maple).
- Encourage branching for larger harvests or improved appearance (e.g. basil and lavender).
- Direct the plant’s energy toward flower and/or fruit production rather than leaf maintenance (e.g. wine grapes and roses).
- Alter a plant’s appearance for our own aesthetic purposes (e.g. topiaries).
If you have the land, I encourage you to leave some parts of your landscape wild and engage with nature’s methods. Nature has much to teach on proper pruning. But, in your cultivated gardens, be more practical and prune as necessary.
Of course, no one wants to prune more they have to. So, you can also manage your workload with these easy tricks.
1. Pick plants that require less pruning.
Plant selection plays a big role in how much pruning you’ll have to do.
– Disease Resistant Plants
I can get away with pruning apple trees every other year if I grow varieties that have natural disease resistance to common pathogens in my area. Whereas disease prone fruit trees need frequent pruning to keep the canopy open and prevent fungal pathogens from flourishing.
– Intermittent Pruning Tolerant
I also like plants that I can heavy prune every few years then mostly skip pruning for a few years. Established elderberry shrubs, for example, can be cut to the ground every 4-5 years. New stems will grow back in no time. You’ll get a later harvest and lose some productivity the first year after pruning. But our elderberries are so productive I barely notice.
– Prune-less-often Cultivars
Many flowering plants require deadheading and pinch-pruning to encourage flowering. But plant breeders also produce cultivars and hybrids that don’t require heavy pruning for heavy production. By picking plants cultivated for minimal pruning you only have to prune for shape, size, and disease prevention instead of constantly for repeat flower production.
– Dormant Pruning Only
Goji, pear, plum, and peach put on so much new growth each year that they really need to be pruned annually. But that’s best done in winter when other gardening chores are minimal. So, it’s easier to fit it in.
2. Pick plants that are fun to prune, so it doesn’t feel like work.
My favorite type of pruning is harvest pruning. For example, with my Meyer lemon tree, I often just harvest half a branch with several lemons on it. Then I use the branch to carry the lemons in the house. The place where I made the cut will produce new growth and eventually new fruit.
Harvest pruning works great for herbs too. Of course your basil tops are perfect for salad. The rosemary you trim can be dried. Allspice pruning can be harvested for use in tea blends. With cinnamon, all of your pruned whips can be used as spice.
You can also harvest prune flowers. Dahlias love to be cut. So do zinnias, lavender, coreopsis, and blanket flowers – all of which make lovely flower bouquets.
3. Find uses for the pruned parts of plants that require prolific pruning.
I have a few plants that require pruning on a regular basis. Topiaries fall into this category. I love the look of perfect pruned cone tops or poof balls on tall stems, so I prune with pleasure to keep the shape. But then I use the cuttings to make decorations or feed to my goats.
Grapes are another example. They require dormant pruning and routine canopy management throughout the growing season. Yet, if you like dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), you can consider part of that pruning a harvest by preserving your own grape leaves to use later. Grape vines can also be used for making baskets.
Cold-hardy kiwi is another plant that requires frequent pruning. My goats love the leaves, though. So pruning and taking all those cut vines to the goats is so much fun. Then, after they eat all the leaves I collect the vines and weave them into vine ropes for garden decoration. Or I dry them and put them flower arrangements, especially the curly cuttings.
Beyond planning when to prune, there’s all the practical knowledge you need to use prune to promote plant health, productivity, and achieve your aesthetic goals. Here’s some information to get you started.
Use quality tools.
Pruning shears, loppers, and folding handsaws are my tools of choice. I also need a ladder at times for larger trees.
Keep cutting edges sharp.
I frequently prune small amounts with dull instruments out of sheer laziness. But when I prune our 50 grape plants and 30+ fruit trees in winter, I sharpen often with a pocket sharpener so I don’t waste energy forcing cuts.
Sharp blades also ensure you don’t rip the bark while cutting. Ugly cuts can make plants more prone to disease.
Keep tools clean.
One of the easiest ways to spread disease around your landscape is by not cleaning your pruning tools frequently between cuts.
For a healthy plant, I may prune the whole plant then dip my equipment in bleach solution (9 parts water, 1 part bleach) before starting the next plant. If a plant has any signs of disease, I dip my tools in bleach solution between each cut to avoid spreading diseases to uninfected branches. I also prune plants and parts of plants that have had or currently have diseased parts after I prune everything else to reduce risk for disease transmission.
Fungal diseases travel by spores. So gardeners who touch one branch and then another can be the main vector of transmission of many diseases. As such, I’m also careful not to touch diseased plant matter and then touch healthy plant parts until I wash my hands (COVID-style for 20 seconds with warm water and soap).
Bag up your diseased plant material immediately after you cut it. That way you don’t drag diseased plant matter through your landscape — potentially spreading the pathogen as you go. Then, burn that bagged matter or triple plastic bag it before sending it to the landfill.
Know the Node Rules
Making the actual cut to remove plant parts is the place most people tend to go wrong. Luckily, there are only a few things you need to know to get it right.
Where to Cut
Really, there’s only one good place to make the cut if you want to keep plants healthy long term. That’s directly after a node. This is true whether you are removing a side stem or cutting off the top of a branch.
Also cut at a slight slant, so water drains off the cut rather than pooling on it, to limit disease risks.
Cut Above Vs. Cut Below
Also know that you aren’t just making a cut, you are stimulating a response. Think of plants like those lizards that regrow a lost tail – except that some plants don’t just regrow the cut part – they grow multiples to hedge their bets.
The good news is that plants are pretty predicable in their response to stimulation. Basically where you make the cut in relation to the nodes will determine what kind of growth you stimulate.
If you trim the tip of a branch (as show above), you’ll encourage branching from the node. That’s how you make things bushier.
If you cut stems from the sides of the branches, you encourage the tips to grow longer. You may also encourage more nodes to form along the branch.
This is why pruning naturally begets more pruning. It’s also why you need to make sure your plants are well-fed and hydrated during the growing season so they can support that new growth generated in response to the pruning we do for our purposes.
Every plant has pruning preferences such as when to prune, how much of the plant to take, and special care requirements after pruning. So, before you start cutting, look up the pruning specifics for your plants.
Here are some free pruning guides to help you prune all sorts of plants.
Prune with Prudence
I was going to end with some clever words of wisdom about pruning with prudence — who doesn’t like a little alliteration now and then. But then I realized that Prudence could probably tell you herself. (Ha Ha!)
So, instead, why don’t you prune with confidence knowing that you’ve done your research. You have clear goals in mind. And you are ready with the right tools to do a great job!