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Pruning Shrubs, Part 3 - How to Prune

Learn how to prune shrubs.  Click here for part 2, When to Prune.

Pruning Demystified - Download PDF


Contributors: Stacey Hirvela

When you set out to do your pruning, the right tool for the job is a pair of sharp bypass pruners. These work with a scissor-like action, with the blades sliding past one another to make a nice, clean cut. This is preferable to anvil pruners, where the blade comes down on a thick plate, which results in a messy, tattered cut.

Many people are intimidated when they try to think about how much they can prune without damaging the shrub’s health and vigor. The best rule of thumb to use when making pruning decisions is to know that you can safely remove up to one-third of the plant’s growth at any one time. There may be times when you prune more, such as when you are rejuvenating an overgrown shrub, but generally speaking, the “one-third rule” is the best guideline to follow. This can mean removing one third of the total height, or one-third of the total number of branches, depending on the type of plant and how severely it needs to be cut back. It’s best to err on the side of caution and cut too little than too much.

Cut back each stem to a big, healthy bud. The size of the bud determines the vigor of the growth that will come from it – this is another reason why you should wait until growth begins to do your pruning. When you are pruning plants with alternate foliage (where the leaves are not directly across the stem from one another), the direction the bud is facing determines the direction that the new stem will grow. You can capitalize on this fact and choose to guide the growth of these plants away from paths and living areas, or to work toward filling in bare areas in your landscape.

When cutting into a branch, aim to minimize wounding. Make straight, not slanted, cuts: this results in the smallest exposed surface area and encourages quick recovery. Do not make them too close to the bud, which could damage it, and do not make them too far from it, which leaves a useless stub of wood that will eventually rot away.

One of the best possible tips for your pruning sessions is to remember to step back and look at the plant every 3-5 cuts. This helps you get a good sense of the direction you’re headed and helps you make wise and informed decisions for the next round of cuts. If you aren’t sure whether or not something should be cut, or how much it should be cut, tie a piece of string on the branch in question and step back to consider what the effect of cutting the branch would be.

Congratulations! You’ve just learned the basics you need to prune flowering shrubs and roses in your landscape. If you’re still a little leery to go out and prune, though, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with a quick and easy guide to pruning the most popular shrubs. Coming Soon.   If you missed the first two articles you can click these links read Part 1, Why and Part 2, WhenThe fourth, and final, installment in this series is a plant by plant guide to pruning.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 03/12/2015 - 7:31am

The past few days of warmer weather, I've had pruning of Incrediball hydrangeas on my mind. This is all very timely and helpful advice. I wasn't aware of the straight cut being best, but it makes sense. Also had never considered that I could control the side new growth appears on by where I prune. Thanks!

Cindy Meyers's picture
Cindy Meyers Thu, 03/12/2015 - 2:47pm

So glad that you found Stacey's article helpful! She is one of the best!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 06/16/2013 - 1:37pm

Ms. Hirvela, I respect your deep knowledge of pruning all sorts of plants and trees. I have been bothered, however, by the fact that I can find no research validating that straight vs slanted cuts improve plant health. For that matter, I can't find any research saying slant vs straight pruning is better. Do you know of research that has been done on the topic and if so, could you provide a link or resource? Every article I can find on the internet right now says cut at 45 degree angle but I'm wondering if this is just a myth that has been handed down? Your thoughts would be much appreciated!

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 11/04/2014 - 10:55am

I'm so sorry I missed your comment! The slanted cut idea is just one of those old myths that everyone has accepted as truth for decades without questioning it. While I don't know of any particular research that has proven anything either way, the belief now (which I share) is that the best you can do for a regular pruning cut like this is to minimize the surface area so that the plant has less area to try to heal. On most shrubs, like roses, for example, the branches really aren't large enough that it would make a huge difference; nonetheless, I recommend minimizing the surface area on all pruning cuts as a best practice.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/24/2013 - 9:08pm

Very nice, short, sweet and to the point. Mary

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:29am

Thanks for the short & sweet advice - very informative without being too lengthy. Sometimes the more explanation is given, the more confusing it is. Over the winter, I see I've made one of the mistakes you've mentioned - cutting too far from a bud gave me lots of extra wood that DID rot:( I understand now. I also understand now why it's best to wait for some budding. Thanks for your help. cathy

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/28/2013 - 11:12am

When you say to cut not too close or not to leave a long stem do you mean leave about 1/2" or 1/4" above the bud?

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Tue, 11/04/2014 - 10:56am

About 1/4" would be best - you don't want to cut too close, but you don't want to leave a useless stump, either.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/28/2013 - 7:04am

Thank you so much for your informative series on pruning! I just purchased and planted a beautiful reblooming Korean lilac. I have little experience with lilacs so the advice is great. I look forward to your coming articles - thank you!

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