There are no essential skills when it comes to gardening - all you truly need is a patch of soil and some enthusiasm, but there are some that will help make your endeavours that bit more fruitful, and one of them is pruning. The main reason behind this is that there are lots of different reasons that you might want to prune a plant, and there are many common plants that benefit from it. If you know what you’re doing, your skills will go a long way to getting the best out of your garden and the plants in it. Let’s take a look at things in detail.

Why Prune?

In short, pruning involves selectively removing bits of a plant. This might mean snipping off a few leaves from a bonzai, or even cutting off the branches from a fully grown tree. Broadly, there are four reasons that you might do this.

Maintaining the health of the plant is probably the most common. Branches, shoots and flowers that are dying off are more susceptible to disease, which could spread, and they still draw some nutrients away from the rest of the structure. By selectively removing them, you reduce the vulnerability of the plant by allowing only healthy material to be exposed.

The quality of flowers and fruits that a plant produces is partly based on the nutrients and resources that it has access to - but these are not infinite. As a result, they will be split across different branches and to different fruit. By selectively reducing the number of fruit that can grow on any given tree, the quality of that fruit is likely to be greater.

Another reason to prune is the simplest - that the plant in question has grown too large for its immediate environment, or is causing an obstruction and needs to be brought back to size. This can be as small as a bush that’s starting to overshadow a patch of flowers, to a full grown tree that is starting to get too close to buildings or roads.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, skilled gardeners will train their plants with pruning. This means taking the time to shape the way the plant chooses to grow, by removing certain parts of the plant early. This can prevent the need for major pruning works in the future.

What Tools Should You Use?

As always, having the right tool makes the job much easier indeed. The main reason for this is that they’ll get a better cut, which is always beneficial for the health of your plant. Rough cuts don’t heal as quickly, and are more susceptible to disease. They can also be frayed and weak, which might affect the whole branch. And of course for your own sake, it’s much easier to cut through plant material with a properly sized sharp blade.

A standard pair of hand shears is great for many applications around the garden, and most of them will be able to tackle branches up to ½” in diameter. For larger branches of up to around 2”, then you’ll want some loppers. They also have the added benefit of usually having long handles, which make reaching up to higher branches much easier.

Most gardeners will be able to take on most jobs with a couple of good shears, but there are also more specialist tools for certain jobs, such as hedge clippers and pruning saws. Take a look on our site to see some examples of what’s out there to help you.

Chainsaws are an option for some tree cutting jobs, though they are not always suitable, especially when working on live trees. As a result, they should be used only by those who are confident in their use, and understand the intricacies of tree surgery.

When Should You Prune?

In general, it’s best to prune your plants when they aren’t at risk of frosts, as these can damage the plant if any cuts you’ve made haven’t healed properly. This makes spring an ideal time in most climates - especially since plants generally go through their best stages of growth during this season. This means that you’ll soon see reward if you’re trying to encourage particular growth or improve the quality of shoots and fruit.

If you’re caught out by a late frost in early spring, or an early one in autumn, it’s generally not going to be too harmful to the plant in question, but it may mean that any growth in the area you’ve pruned is stunted. Pruning in summer is fine, but if you’re pruning for any other reason than reducing the plant’s size, you might not see results for a long while.

It is worth bearing in mind however that some plants have specific times that are best for their pruning, so you should take a few minutes to do some research on whatever it is that you’re going to be giving a prune.

Pruning Techniques

When it comes to removing dead, dying or diseased growth, the task is fairly simple. You want to cut beyond any ailed part of the plant and into healthy material. This will ensure the plant is able to heal, and there’s less risk of disease spreading further into the structure. There’s no need to cut healthy material too far back unless you’re reducing if for size, but always make sure that you’ve got all of the diseased or decaying matter. If you are cutting a large branch with thick bark, then it may be worth making a couple of small cuts into the bark a few inches from where the main cut will be to prevent the bark from stripping off beyond where you’ve pruned it.

Pruning is at its easiest when you can clearly see new buds forming, because it’s best to make your cuts just above them. This will reduce the chances of dieback, which could undo your hard work. If the plant is diverting resources to new growth, then it shouldn’t be troubled by lost material beyond that growth provided the cuts are made properly. 45 degrees is the best angle to make cuts here - this will help ensure that the surface area of the wound is small, but that water won’t collect on it. Always have the lower side of the cut on the opposite side of the branch to the bud, with around half a centimetre between the bud and the higher end of the cut.

It also helps here to understand exactly how buds work. Generally, there three different types, and knowing what each one does will help you make the right choices when pruning. At the end of a branch, you may have a terminal bud, which is what causes a branch to continue growing in length. As long as one of these is present, growth will not happen, or will be restricted, from any buds on the side of the branch. These buds are known as lateral buds, and will begin to grow when the branch has grown long enough that the terminal bud no longer has much effect. As a result, cutting either of these buds will cause the other to grow. There are also latent buds, which sit underneath the bark, and which may form a new shoot if the branch beyond them breaks - or is cut - off.

Use what you now know about tools, techniques and buds to decide how and where to prune your plant. With the basic knowledge in place, you’ll be able to prune effectively in any scenario. If, for example you have a small bush that has become too large and thin, use a hand shear to prune it back to some of its lateral buds in the late winter or early spring to encourage bushy growth in the warmer months. Alternatively, if you have a tree with a dead and diseased branch, cut the entirety of dead matter right back to the branch collar with a pruning saw as soon as you can.