A woman cutting some roses

The Art of Clever Pruning

To prune or not to prune; that is the question. The answer is almost always YES but then of course, this leads to many other questions; When? How much? Why? With what? Hard pruning? Tip pruning? To the bud? To the collar? What is a bud? What is a collar? And so on and so forth.

No two people prune the same making it an interesting and sometimes fiery topic of conversation amongst gardeners. For some, pruning is ”a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”; these timid pruners are filled with self-doubt and would rather retreat to the simplicity of a nice comforting patch of soil than use a pair of secateurs. For others, the answer is simple; prune everything, prune it hard, often and in a heavy-handed confident way. As you can imagine, the perfect pruner sits between these two styles. 

“Wander, ponder; and prune,” the old saying goes. Let’s look at each of these in detail.

A woman standing in her garden


Wander around your garden and identify the plants that could benefit from pruning. There are many factors that may motivate you to pick up your secateurs, loppers or saw; a plant might be outgrowing its allocated spot and is creating problems of space and sunlight for its neighbours or you may want to increase the quality and size of flowers, fruits, leaves and stems. Another reason could be style; you may want to transform a bush into a topiary or train a fruit tree into an espalier or fan. 

Another simple motivation could be the love you have for your plants and wanting them to live a long and healthy life. Whatever the reason, keep in mind the golden rule of seasonal pruning; generally, winter pruning promotes growth whilst summer pruning will do the opposite. If tree pruning is done during the dormant period, it will have an invigorating and energising effect whilst pruning done during peak growth time will result in slower growth due to the reduction in leaves therefore reduction in nutrients.

Secateurs in hand


So you have picked a young plant, bush or tree in your garden that needs pruning, now is the time to unleash your powers of observation. Stand back and ponder. Although some pruning choices are difficult to make, the decision to remove all dead and diseased branches is an easy one. This should be done as soon as it is noticed regardless of season. 

Next on the pruning check-list is the elimination of branches that are crossing over each other. The constant rubbing of these branches against one another will damage the bark and create ideal conditions for disease to enter the plant. Of the two branches, identify the branch that is in a better position, for example, not growing laterally or inwards towards the centre of the canopy and remove the other one. Thinning out these congested areas will not only avoid bark damage but will also result in greater air ventilation, an important factor in plant health. 

There is also a general consensus on the need to eliminate suckers. These enthusiastic little shots appear at the base of the plant and originate from the roots or just below the bud union. If rising from the soil, you will have to dig out the soil around the sucker and clip the sucker off. 

Gardena Secateur

Now that the more obvious snips and chops have been attended to, you will have to make more plant-specific pruning decisions. Do some research on the exact specie you plan to prune since plants are usually quite particular about how they like to be pruned. For example, in the case of fruit trees, some such as peach and nectarine trees fruit on previous season’s growth while others such as apricot trees have their fruit on wood that is two years old or more. What and where you prune in these cases will have a large influence on your bounty (or lack thereof if done in haste without proper research).


When it comes to pruning, there are a few general rules that, if followed, are sure to increase your chances of success. Follow these and your plants will thank you for it.

RULE #1 : Choose your pruning partner wisely

Secateurs, loppers, garden saws, tree pruners; all important members of the pruning tool family but like all families, certain members are better at certain jobs than others. Choosing the right tool will make your pruning task significantly easier and cause less damage to your plants. The deciding factor is predominantly branch size. GARDENA recommends secateurs for stems and branches up to 24mm (depending on secateurs model) and loppers for branches between 24mm and 45mm. For branches more than 45mm, a garden saw is the right choice and remember a garden saw is not a carpenter saw or vice versa. Tree pruners, some having a length up to 410cm, come in handy when needing to remove branches high up in the canopy.

In the case of secateurs, another important consideration is the type of wood that is being pruned. If cutting flowers, young shoots and fresh wood then bypass secateurs are the best choice. Both blade and counter blade are ground and penetrate into the branch simultaneously resulting in a clean cut that is less likely to harm the plant. For hard and dry wood, an anvil type pair of secateurs with its precision-ground upper blade coming straight down onto the flat surface of the bottom anvil exerts the optimum power needed for this task (a good analogy is an axe coming down hard on a chopping block).

Gardena Anvil Secateur

RULE #2: Keep it clean

Maintenance is key for the long service life of your pruning tools so keep them sharp and well oiled. Regular care of your tools will keep them at their peak and will save you time and money both on tools and plants in the future.

While on the topic of cleanliness, it is vital to clean secateurs and other pruning tools between plants to avoid the spread of disease-causing bacteria and spores from one plant to another. You may also want to do this when removed a branch that appears diseased or has died in case it has been infected by a fungal disease. The best way to do so is to wipe the blades with either bleach, alcohol wipes or bottled methylated spirits (10%) then rinse.

RULE #3: Location, location, location

It is always important to keep in mind that when you are pruning, you are in fact wounding the plant and therefore it is best to do so in a way that will allow the plant to heal itself as quickly and efficiently as possible. Keep your cuts clean and position them in the special places on the plant where natural defences are at their highest concentration. In the case of trees, the ideal location when cutting entire branches is at the collar, the point where a branch joins the main trunk. Easily identifiable by the wrinkled texture of the bark, this is where the healing magic takes place thanks to the meristematic tissue located there making it an area of active plant growth.

When pruning stems, the perfect spot is where the bud or leaf emerges. Stem structures can be arranged in two patterns; alternate or opposite. For alternate buds (think roses), the best location for the cut is just above an outward-facing bud at a 45 degree angle downwards away from it. This will avoid water pooling on the top of the cut stem and on the bud itself. The base of your bud should more or less be in alignment with the base of your cut on the opposite side. If instead, you are faced with an opposite patterned plant with the two shoots positioned exactly opposite each other on the stem (think basil) then the best cut is straight across above the junction of the two shoots where there are two healthy buds just waiting for their turn to grow.

A woman cutting a plant in her garden

RULE #4: Don’t forget the undercut!

The key to good pruning is to keep damages down to a minimum; keeping the cut area as small as possible helps with this. Exposing the tree’s vulnerable underside by mistakenly ripping off bark will increase the likelihood of bacteria, spores and other disease-inducing visitors entering the tree’s delicate inner structure. When removing a large branch from a tree, the first step is to take off smaller branches using secateurs and loppers. Once you are down to the main branch that you wish to remove, you will need to saw a small undercut before starting your main cut on the top of the branch. The weight of a large branch may cause it to fall before the main cut is complete and the undercut will avoid the branch taking part of the bark or cambium layers along with it. Remember to follow the angle of the collar wrinkle when sawing since that is where the special healing cells live.

RULE #5: Don’t prune just to make a plant fit.

If you find yourself constantly pruning a plant to make it fit where you want it to then perhaps this plant is not the best choice for that specific location. You may need to rethink the layout of your garden bed and even relocate the plant to a better spot somewhere else in the garden where it has ample room to grow without disturbing its neighbouring plants or other landscape elements such as walls and fences.

RULE #6: End with kindness

Pruning makes your plants momentarily vulnerable so make sure to water, feed and mulch them well once you are done.