How to Prune Houseplants

a vine arranged on a shelf

The Spruce / Melina Hammer

While you don't have to worry about regularly pruning indoor plants (like you do for outdoor varieties), at some point, you'll need to get out your shears for some indoor cleanup. Maybe you need to cut away dead leaves or branches to keep the plant presentable. Or perhaps you'd like to encourage a more balanced growth pattern. Some runaway plants may be eating up your living room; while others may look spindly and in need of a trim to grow fuller. Whatever the reason, taking proper pruning measures will assure you don't go wild with the scissors and create undue stress for your windowsill companions.

When to Prune Houseplants

Houseplants should typically be pruned at the beginning of the growing season, which is late winter or early spring for many varieties, depending on your climate. A good rule of thumb for flowering species is to prune them just after they have finished flowering. If you do so right before they bloom, you'll be removing unopened buds that would otherwise turn into showy flowers. Woody indoor plants are an exception to this seasonal rule, however, requiring year-round pruning that involves the removal of dead leaves and branches.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 10 to 15 minutes per plant
  • Total Time: Several weeks, if propagating new plants from clippings
  • Material Cost: Under 20 dollars

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

  • Pruning shears
  • Kitchen scissors
  • Gardening gloves (optional)

Materials

  • Clay pots (optional)
  • Potting soil (optional)
houseplant pruning materials

Instructions

  1. Observe the Plant

    Take a step back from the plant and look at its structure and shape. Notice if it's growing spindly, looks fuller on one side then the other, or if it contains any diseased growth. Check for areas of potential new growth, known as "latent buds." Buds typically occur where the leaf joins the plant stem.

    observing your plant
  2. Determine Your Tools

    If the plant's branches are thick, like those of an indoor tree, use pruning shears. If they are slender, kitchen scissors may give you a cleaner cut.

  3. Remove Dead Matter

    Clip or pinch off dead leaves and stems. If stems have rotted at the root, pull them out and make sure to dry out the soil before the plant's next watering.

    removing a dead leaf from a houseplant
  4. Deadhead the Plant

    If you're working with a flowering houseplant, remove all spent flowers by pinching them off or clipping them back as close to the main stem as possible.

    deadheading flowers
  5. Make Your Cuts

Make judicious cuts to encourage new growth. Cut just before a leaf node. Or, when cutting back larger stems, cut as close to the main stem as possible. Do not remove more than 25 percent of the plant.

cutting just before a leaf node

Houseplant Pruning Tips

Proper pruning requires an understanding of the plant's growth patterns. Plants grow from the tip down, meaning that new growth emerges from the dominant bud at the end of a branch or leaf. Although the plant has potential dominant growth cells throughout, the new growth will come from this final bud. To prune a plant and encourage bushy new growth, snip off the dominant buds on select stems. While doing so, stagger the cuts to encourage varied growth. Trim some branches back one-quarter of their length; others to one-half; and still, others can be cut all the way back to their base. This way, when the plant leafs out again, the growth originates from the stems outward in a random pattern that fills out the plant.

Deadheading is a different kind of pruning that removes spent blossoms and blooms. As a plant blooms, it puts energy into its flowers at the expense of new growth. Even as the flower is dying, it still consumes energy from the plant. To prolong the blooming period and encourage healthy, large flowers, deadheading is necessary.

When pruning, cleanliness is important. Any cut made to a plant's tissue exposes it to possible bacterial infection. Keep your pruning instrument sharp and clean and disinfect between each use with a mild bleach and water solution.

Most houseplant clippings can be saved, rooted in a cup of water, and then planted to form new houseplants. Succulent clippings can even be propagated by planting them directly in a pot of soil and keeping it moist. After a few weeks, you'll have new baby plants you can keep for yourself or gift to friends.

Working With Vines

Pruning vines is very similar to pruning general houseplants, however, it involves more work. Indoor vines should be encouraged to grow along a support with any wandering stems kept at bay. With vines, you may have to do a hard pruning in the summer or spring to cut them back to a manageable form. Many vines are notoriously rampant growers when they're healthy.

working with a vine houseplant

Plants That Shouldn't Be Pruned

Some plants rarely need pruning and others should never be pruned at all. Palms and Norfolk Island pines both form a terminal dominant bud, but do not possess latent buds. Removing the dominant bud will kill the plant, so it's best to let these species be. Similarly, many varieties of orchids cannot be pruned beyond removing dead flower spikes. Do so at the point where the spike comes out of the leaves, and hopefully, you'll see blooms again after several months.