Pruning is probably one of the most confusing topics for new gardeners because there is no single method or timing that suits all situations. But, there are some basic underlying principles that, once you know them, can make it much easier to know whether to snip and clip or leave things alone.
I’ll walk you through some easy Pruning 101 guidelines as well as my own pruning and deadheading calendar which you can adapt for the plants in your garden.
Related: How to choose the right pruning tool.
How Pruning & Deadheading Helps
- Plant health and safety – removal of dead, damaged, or diseased, or overlapping branches, buds, or roots, as well as suckers and water sprouts assists with plant health (strength, air circulation, sun reach, and pest and disease resistance) and appearance.
- Deadheading of flowering and fruiting annuals and perennials removes dead or dying growth, allowing room for new growth and blooms.
In spring, these plants are ‘cut back‘ to a few inches from the ground to allow room for new growth.
Do not worry if it seems overwhelming at first. The more you work in the garden, the faster you will develop an eye for which plants need attention.
Wait. Should You Prune?
When I started gardening, I had the impression that pruning was simply a necessary annual chore. It was only when I read up on it that I realized that while some pruning (and deadheading) can serve specific beneficial purposes, it may not often be necessary. And, when it is needed, there’s some valuable resources there you might want to hang onto. Read on.
Decay is Beneficial
- While a plant can do better with the removal of dead matter, it doesn’t mean you should remove the trimmings entirely from your garden.
- Dead and decaying matter is the essential lifeblood of the natural world.
- Yes, a large, dead overhead branch in the garden should be removed for safety reasons, but that same dead branch left on the ground is excellent and essential habitat and fuel for life in the garden, from the tiniest microbes to insects and wildlife.
- Nature can only renew itself through death, and a pristine, ‘clean’ garden is not a beneficial one.
The basic saying is, when in doubt, don’t prune! And when you should, don’t throw away the good stuff!
Disposal of diseased or pest-ridden matter is always smart, but, if you have room, the rest can stay.
My trimmings go in the compost piles and berms, become mulch, and get used for plant supports and garden art projects. A branch collection can be very handy!
Related: See pruners at Amazon.com
Pruning Principles 101
In general, the principle is, prune when the plant is asleep (dormant) or not producing buds or blooms.
- Many trees handle pruning best in mid-winter when the sap is not running.
- Trimming herbaceous growth like leaves on a boxwood hedge is done during the growing season (ending weeks before first frost).
- Many flowering perennials are best cut back or deadheaded in spring just as the new growth starts poking up.
While you could do this in the fall, you would be removing valuable winter food and habitat for wildlife (from microbes to birds and more), so wait if you can.
- The key for pruning fruit trees and shrubs is to know when the plant fruits and whether it produces the fruit on old or new wood/growth.
The goal when pruning is to remove the old (and no longer useful wood) while protecting whatever parts are creating new flower and fruit buds.
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Empress of Dirt Pruning and Deadheading Calendar
If you would like to print a copy, you can grab a copy here.
Winter (while plants are dormant)
Remove dead or damaged limbs, suckers, overlapping or leggy branches.
- Deciduous, evergreen, and fruit trees.
- Shrubs grown for foliage (barberry, burning bush, euonymus…).
- Bush berries (blueberry, gooseberry, currants-oldest stems only).
Early Spring (some new growth may be starting to appear)
This is my main garden clean up time for the year.
- Summer-flowering perennials (daisies, coneflowers, black-eyed Susan’s…) – cut down last year’s growth.
- Ornamental grasses – remove old, dead growth.
- Roses – remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches only. Careful not to remove any new buds.
- Flowering perennials and annuals – deadhead (remove finished blooms) to encourage a second round of flowers.
- Trim and shape greenery like boxwood hedges up until 6 weeks before average first frost.
- Once-a-year blooming climbing and old garden roses – deadhead after blooming is finished.
- Clematis – look up which type you have and use this pruning guide.
Late Summer / Early Fall (after flowering, before new buds form)
- Most plants can wait for spring cleanup.
- Wildlife including birds depend on perennial seed pods and old growth for winter food and habitat.
- TIP: Put ribbons on any branches you need to prune when trees and shrubs are dormant in the winter.
- Cane Berries (raspberries and blackberries) – remove two-year-old canes soon after they finish bearing.
To sum it up, remove dead and decaying parts with minimal impact on the next buds, bloom, or fruit.
Be sure to google pruning instructions for your specific plants to learn the best tools to use and exactly how and where to cut.