#105 – The Principles of Pruning


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Many homeowners avoid pruning because they fear ruining their plants. However, proper pruning can greatly benefit your landscape. This guide will explain the basics and dispel common misconceptions.

What You’ll Learn:

  • What Is Pruning & Why Do We Do It?
  • Pruning Strategies for Healthy Plants
  • When & Where to Make Cuts
  • How to Keep Your Tools Clean (To Prevent Disease Spread)

What is Pruning?

Pruning simply means removing plant parts, typically shoots or branches, but sometimes buds, flowers, fruit, or even roots.

Why do we Prune?

Control Plant Size and Shape: Pruning helps maintain the desired height, width, and form of your plants.
Improve Plant Health: Proper pruning promotes vigorous growth, better flower and fruit production, and stronger branches on trees.
Train Young Plants: Early training encourages a strong framework and upright posture for trees and shrubs.
Rejuvenate Neglected Plants: In rare cases, severe pruning can stimulate new growth on neglected plants. The Oleander and Texas Sage, Leucophyllum varieties are great examples of shrubs that will respond to heavy pruning.

Pruning Strategies
The main branches of a tree, called scaffold branches, should be spaced evenly around the trunk, resembling a spiral staircase. This promotes strong branch attachment and helps resist wind and weight problems. Once a good framework is established, most pruning becomes “maintenance pruning.”

This involves removing:

  • Dead, broken, or diseased branches.
  • Branches that rub against each other.
  • Crowded branches in the interior of the tree (improves air circulation and light penetration). (top)

Keep In Mind

Decide where you want the lowest permanent branch to be. Branches stay at the same height as the tree grows. Remove lower branches early (before they get too thick) if you want to walk or mow under the tree.

Sanitize Your Tools to Stop Disease Spread

Pruning tools can carry disease between plants. To prevent this, clean them before and after each use. If you know the plant has a disease, like Sooty Canker, clean them between each cut:

What you’ll need:

  • Rubbing alcohol (best) or a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach, 9 parts water)
  • Rag or brush

How to clean:

  • For rubbing alcohol: Simply spray directly onto the tools and wipe clean.
  • For bleach solution: Dip your tools or wipe them thoroughly with a soaked rag.
  • Let the tools air dry completely before storing them.


Maintenance Pruning

Properly trained trees require minimal additional pruning. Here are some specifics:
Suckers: These are unwanted sprouts that grow at the base of grafted trees. Remove them when small, cutting close to the trunk.
Water Sprouts: These are fast-growing, weak branches that develop higher up on trees. Remove them as well.

When to Prune

Deciduous Fruit Trees: Prune in winter before flowering to control fruit set (fewer, larger fruits).
Deciduous Shrubs: Prune in winter if needed.
Spring-Flowering Shrubs: Prune after flowering to avoid cutting off flower buds.          Summer/ Fall Flowering Shrubs: Prune in spring to encourage new growth and flowers.

Planting & Pruning

Avoid heavy pruning at planting time. It can hinder root development. Focus on removing only broken or damaged branches and those that crowd or cross in the interior.
On young trees, leave the small lateral branches on the lower trunk. They help develop a thicker trunk and will likely fall off naturally within a year.

Right Plant, Right Place

Frequent pruning to control size is often a sign of a poorly chosen plant for the space. Consider these factors when planting:

        • Overhead utility lines
        • Nearby structures
        • Walkways and driveways
        • Other trees

Planting a tree that fits the space will save you time and effort in the long run.

How & Where to Cut

The ideal pruning cut location is a slight bulge on the branch where it joins the main trunk. This “natural target pruning” minimizes wound size and promotes faster healing. Avoid cutting flush with the trunk or leaving stubs, as both can encourage disease.

Topping vs. Proper Pruning

“Topping” is a severe pruning practice that removes large sections of branches. It weakens trees, creates unsightly growth, and takes years to correct. It’s not recommended.

Summary and Reference
Pruning takes practice, but it’s a rewarding skill for homeowners. With this guide and some basic tools, you can keep your plants healthy and beautiful.
Basic Books
2001, Sunset Publishing Corporation, Menlo Park, California
Lee Reich, 1999, The Tauton Press, Inc., Newtown, CT
1989, Monsanto Co, Ortho Books, San Ramon, CA.
USDA Forestry Service
How to Prune Trees (a pdf file, you will need adobe reader – available at:
( http://adobe.9-pdf-pro.com/index.asp )
©2024, Star Nursery, Inc.

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