No matter what plant you are pruning, when, or why, there are a few principles of good pruning that are always helpful to master. The most basic is probably making a “clean” cut, a cut that will be easy for the plant to heal.
Every cut in a plant is a wound, even a pruning cut. Just like in humans, pruning wounds expose plants to disease while they are open, and have a natural healing process that, when allowed to progress properly, closes these wounds quickly.
Your primary aim in making good cuts is to expedite this healing process.
This step-by-step is like a tactical manual: other guides will help you decide what parts of a plant should be pruned out; this guide will tell you how to make sure that each pruning cut you make is a clean cut, leaving the plant to heal and regrow as strongly as possible.
Yes, this is Step Zero. No, you really can’t skip this step. Pruning is surgery, and you can’t do surgery with a dull scalpel. A clean pruning cut slices the wood, not tears it. Dull blades tear wood fibers, killing more living cells and blocking the healing process.
1. Choose Where To Cut
- Whether you are removing wood that is dead, damaged, or diseased or pruning out wood for other purposes like thinning or shaping the plant, your first step to making a good cut is deciding which branch needs to be cut.
- Once you have chosen the branch to cut, examine it until you find a good cut site:
- When cutting a branch a year or older off hardwood trees and shrubs, there will be a slightly swollen “collar” ringing the base of the branch. On older wood, this areas is larger and often more visible. Cut just above this ring. Never cut into it.
- When cutting smaller wood, locate your cut just above a strong node with either one or more healthy buds or, even better, a healthy offshoot.
- On conifer wood and hardwood that is over three years old, buds are often buried within the wood. In these cases, just make the cut at the height you want. If the wood is healthy enough, you’ll see regrowth from a hidden bud eventually, at which point you can follow up with any further cuts to remove dead wood.
- For the truly ideal cut, when possible, cut to a bud or offshoot that is not only healthy but points in the direction you want future growth to occur, usually away from the center of the plant. It usually worth cutting back farther—pruning off more wood—to get this situation, which favors development of good structure.
By deciding where to cut first, you will know how thick the wood at your cutting site is. This and the presence of considerations like narrow crotch angles with nearby wood and other access considerations will determine what tool you should use to make your cut.
For most cuts you can reach from the ground level, you will choose between three main tools; for cuts over seven feet high you’ll need pole tools. Always bring all the tools you might need out into the field with you. Carry pruners and saws comfortably in holsters, tuck loppers into a belt.
Otherwise, it is easy to get lazy and try to use the wrong tool instead of the right one you left behind in the shed.
Larger wood requires larger tools, but always use the smallest tool that works comfortably.
3. Tips, Technique, and Tricks
Here are some tips and tricks for making your well-placed cut:
- Safety equipment: work gloves made of leather or strong synthetic material are a good idea, as you’ll be handling rough wood that at the very least will chafe your skin. Many plants, such as junipers, also ooze sap that irritates the skin of many. Safety goggles should be worn when you will be working inside or very close to a shrub, or working near a partner: it is very easy for the thin tips of branches to snap whiplike into your face.
- Is the branch long or heavy? If you are about to prune a tree or large shrub, you will encounter branches with a lot of weight on them. One sign of this is the wood bows towards the ground before or while you cut. If this describes your situation, one cut won’t do: you must use a preliminary cut to relieve the weight before your final pruning cut.
- If using pruners or loppers, maneuver the branch as deep between the blades as you can before making your cut. You get the most leverage, and the strongest cut, this way. It is very tempting to use just the tips of the blades to cut because it is faster, but this stresses your hands and dulls the tool faster as well.
- When working near a tight branch crotch with a lopper or pruner, place the thin, non-bladed side of the tool inside the crotch. I can’t really tell you why, but I’ve always found that in difficult cuts, this helps me make a better one.
- When working near a tight branch crotch with a saw, place the saw inside the crotch and cut down and away from the tight area. Carefully control both sides of your saw—the cutting and the dull side—either one can easily scratch and wound the wood you are not aiming for.
- If using a saw, nick and then slowly scrape into the wood a little before really going at it in earnest. The groove you make will stop the saw from slipping as you work.