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How to Prune Shrubs

Posted By Duncan Idaho On September 11, 2009 @ 4:37 pm In Garden & Outdoors | 1 Comment

If you have a garden, chances are that one or more of your shrubs will need pruning at some point. Pruning not only keeps the plant at a size suitable to its environment, it also improves the plant’s looks and health.

The principle behind pruning is that the removal of older, problematic or diseased branches encourages fresh, healthy growth and an increase in leaves and/or blooms.


The main tool required for pruning is a good quality pair of secateurs or pruning shears.

In addition to this, depending on the size of the shrubs you are dealing with, you may also need a pair of loppers and a pruning saw.

When to Prune

The general rule of thumb is to prune at the end of the plant’s flowering season and in most cases you’ll probably be fine if you follow this rule.

There is, however, an exception:

For shrubs that bloom in summer, prune early in the spring that follows i.e. not after they have just finished flowering. If you prune after these shrubs have just finished blooming, the new growth that follows won’t have time to mature enough to survive the cooler autumn and winter weather.

What to Cut Off

Exactly what you prune away will depend on what you are trying to achieve.

Removing Deadwood

Dead branches look unattractive and are also a threat to the health of the plant as they provide a haven for insects, diseases and other pests.

Dead branches are usually quite easy to identify by their appearance. If you are in doubt, however, you can wait till the rest of the plant begins to bud. Any non-budding branches are likely to be dead.

Deadwood Pruning

Trim the dead branch or stem back to the nearest set of living buds. If you are working with a dead cane, (a branch that rises directly from the ground), use loppers or a pruning saw to cut it off as close to the ground as possible.

Note: If the branch is large and you are using a pruning saw, make a cut on the underside of the branch first before you begin sawing down from the top. This under-side cut is known as a relief cut and will prevent the bark tearing as your branch falls away. Relief cuts should be used for all lateral pruning involving a saw.

Pruning for Appearance

Over the course of a year or two your shrub may have become untidy and shapeless. Rectifying this situation will likely involve working with pruning shears.

Stand well back from the plant and assess it, picture the shape and size you’d like it to be. Then set to work, stopping frequently to check your progress.

Make your cuts about half a centimetre above a bud or leaf node (where a leaf joins a branch). Continue until you have achieved the desired shape and size.


Often shrubs will become too dense in the middle. To remedy this, prune away branches that grow towards the centre of the plant and retain those that grow outwards. Thinning a shrub in this way allows greater penetration of light and better air circulation – both necessary for optimal health and growth.


On some plants you’ll find stems known as suckers, or water sprouts. These are slender branches which grow vertically, either from wood at the base of the plant or from other, lateral branches.

Suckers drain the plant of energy and do not tend to bloom strongly – they should be removed as part of the pruning process.

Note: When removing one branch from another, cut as close to the branch you’re retaining as possible. Try not to leave stumps as these will die and attract disease and pests.

Multi-stemmed Shrubs

If you have a multi-stemmed shrub which has grown too tall, avoid the temptation to give it a “haircut”. Chopping off the top of the plant will make it look unnatural and very obviously pruned.

Work instead from the bottom of the plant. Select the canes several of the tallest canes and cut them off as close to the ground as possible. This will reduce the height of the plant while retaining a natural look.

Renewal Pruning

Cutting canes in this manner is also a technique used in renewal pruning i.e. pruning designed to rejuvenate a shrub. This kind of pruning is similar to thinning pruning and involves removing a certain number of canes from the centre of a multi-stemmed shrub.

Older, woodier canes are removed, “opening up” the plant. This encourages newer, more vigorous growth and greater penetration of light and air.

Note: No more than 30% of the plant should be removed in any one season. Removing more may kill the plant.

Pruning for Everyone

Pruning is often regarded as the province of master gardeners, an esoteric art practiced only by experts. This isn’t so. Take your secateurs out into the garden and snip away. You’ll see that much of it is just common sense. And if you make a wrong cut, don’t worry. Plants are forgiving, in a season you probably won’t even be able to see your mistake.

Learn more about pruning here:

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