7 Helpful Tips to Prune Trees and Plants for a Lively Landscape

Paige Bennett
Written by Paige Bennett
Updated March 4, 2022
A woman pruning apple trees
Photo: hobo_018 / E+ / Getty Images

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Unruly shrubs and plants are more than an eyesore. Without pruning, your plants will consist of overgrowth or dead leaves and branches. Cutting back the excess actually helps your plants grow fuller and more vibrant, leaving your landscape looking healthier. Make pruning an easy part of your landscape upkeep with these seven tips for how to prune trees and plants.

1. Get the Right Equipment

It’s always important to use the right tool for the job for efficiency and safety. Rather than trying to gnaw away at thick tree branches using the same shears you use for more fragile flowers and shrubs, gather a set of pruning tools for different plants.

Shears

Pruning shears, or secateurs, are likely what comes to mind when you think of pruning. There are different types of shears to help you tame various kinds of plants.

  • Anvil: Anvil pruners have a straight blade that works well for cutting through dead or dry branches and stems of smaller plants.

  • Bypass: Bypass pruners have two curved blades that work like scissors to cut through softer, growing stems.

  • Rachet: Ratchet pruners offer a more ergonomic design that can cut through tough branches and stems.

  • Hedge: Hedge shears are designed for shrubbery and can cut branches up to 2 1/4 inches in thickness.

Loppers

Looking to trim up your prized lemon or apple trees? Loppers work well for pruning fruit trees as well as other small trees and vines. These tools can cut branches and stems that are up to 2 1/2 inches thick.

Pruning Saws

While saws aren’t great for your azaleas and rosemary plants, they work great for larger shrubs and trees. Pruning saws will help you remove branches that are up to 5 inches thick, but they shouldn’t be used for branches, vines, or stems that are less than 1 1/2 inches thick.

2. Trim Dead Leaves

Even if you don’t have time to cut away dying branches or excessive stems, removing dead leaves can make a big difference visually. Using your hands or shears, carefully pull or cut away yellow and brown leaves. Make sure the leaves are completely yellow or brown before removing them, as partially yellow or brown leaves still provide nutrients to the plant.

3. Know When to Prune

A woman taking care of her plants
Photo: Chris Clinton / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Just as there are certain times best suited for planting new things in your garden, there are also specific times of the year to prune and not prune. At the start of spring and through summer, plan to prune your trees, shrubs, vines, and other plants as they grow rapidly. In the fall and winter, you’ll want to prune less, as plants tend to grow slower during these cooler seasons.

4. Set a Schedule

Mark your calendar to prune in the spring and summer, but also plan for daily, weekly, and monthly upkeep for some of your most rapidly growing plants. At the start of spring and summer, trim back your plants by up to 25% to prepare them for new growth. Then, throughout the year, create a schedule for removing dead leaves and branches.

5. Cut in the Right Spot

To minimize the number of leftover stems and branches that can rot, you’ll want to cut as close to where the branch or bud meets the stem as possible for flowers and shrubs. Leave about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of limbs when pruning trees.

6. Angle Your Cuts

Once you know where to make a cut, it’s also vital to know how to cut off a branch or stem. Cut stems and branches away at a 45-degree angle, which helps direct the flow of water and prevent rot.

7. Keep Tools Sharp

You’ve cut away some overgrowth and are ready to toss your shears and loppers back into the garden shed until next spring. But not so fast! It’s also essential to care for your tools so they stay sharp. Sharp tools are necessary for cleanly cutting away stems and branches without stunting the plant’s growth or disrupting the flow of nutrients.

Clean the Blades

After each pruning session, wipe off the blades of your pruning tools to remove water, sap, or other debris. Make sure to dry the blades and apply a household oil, like vegetable oil, to prevent rust. For sap or plant matter that has dried to the surface, use emery paper to clean the blades.

Sharpen the Blades

If you spend a lot of time in the garden, plan to sharpen your pruning tools with a file about once every six weeks. If you spend less than four hours per week pruning your plants, you can sharpen your tools just once or twice a year.

Disinfect the Tools

Another important part of pruning is keeping your tools clean. If you cut dead branches from a diseased plant and use the same tool on another plant, you could spread the infection. Either between each plant or at least after every pruning session, disinfect your pruning tools. 

Wipe or dip pruning tools into a disinfectant such as rubbing alcohol, ethanol, or a diluted bleach solution. Then, dry off the disinfectant from each pruning tool before using it on another plant.

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