Common Mistakes We Make When Pruning Our Plants and How to Correct Them


When I first began writing this blog, my intent was to inform homeowners that now (January) is not the time to be pruning their plants.  Because we recently experienced a few days of cold weather, some cold sensitive plants were slightly damaged.  I heard from many people asking if it was OK to prune their plants.  I immediately responded by saying No!  Because it is still winter, we’re still susceptible to freezing temperatures, which by the way does not have to be 32 degrees or below to cause damage to plants.  Pruning now while our temperature is above normal will most likely force out new plant growth which, should a hard freeze occur, not only cause die back of this growth, but potentially weaken and even kill plants.  Thus, the reason for this blog.

I’d like to begin by defining what pruning is.  It’s the selective removal of plant parts, and when properly done, keeps plants healthy and in their natural shape.  It should be a routine part of your landscape maintenance.

When pruning, always have a reason and anticipate the consequences of your actions.  Once you’ve removed a plant part, you can’t re-attach it and expect it to live.  If you aren’t sure, leave it on.  You can always prune later.  And one other comment, don’t severely cut back any plants unless you have to.

Whenever you prune, always properly use the correct tools as they were intended.  The size of the cut and type of plant materials will determine which to use.

If you are cutting live wood, bypass pruners work the best.   For dead wood, use anvil pruners.  Depending on the type of pruners you use, they typically are capable of removing plant materials less than 1″ in diameter.  Anything larger should require a different tool such as loppers, but more on this later.  Why is this important?  It will affect the healing and health of the pruned plant.  The cuts should be clean.  Trying to prune a plant using a tool not intended for its use can force the cutting blades out of alignment and will impact future cuts, which are usually not clean.

Making the actual pruning cut will depend on what’s being removed – tree branches vs. smaller material.  Generally when pruning, always make your pruning cut approximately 1/8″ – 1/4″ above an outside bud, as this will force growth to develop outward from a branch or trunk, rather than towards the center of the plant.  Doing so will allow the center of the plant to be open thus allowing good air movement.  Otherwise if branches are crowded, diseases may develop and in the case of trees, make them more vulnerable to breakage during windy conditions.

When pruning, always try to use as much of the cutting blades as you can with the hooked blade on the side of the wood to be removed.  All too often many will make cuts only with the tips of the blades, which often results in an incomplete cut and over a period of time, will cause them to wear down.

When pruning any tree branches emerging from the trunk, always make sure that your cut is outside the branch collar, which when completed should leave almost a perfect circle and will heal faster than if cut flush to the trunk.  Why?  Because the branch collar is actually part of the trunk.  To understand what a branch collar is, take a moment to look at any garment that has sleeves.  Notice the distinct line where the sleeve is attached to the body.  This is similar to what you’ll find on a tree collar – a line or slightly ridged area.

Returning to my earlier comments about the size of the cut, I said that if the cut is going to be greater than 1″ in diameter, don’t try to prune with hand pruners.  Instead use loppers.  Loppers have cutting blades similar to hand pruners but are larger and have longer handles to provide better leverage when cutting.  Depending on the size of the blades opening they can cut branches up to 3″ or more, especially if they have a ratcheting mechanism, which allows for larger cuts.  They are more expensive, but if you do a lot of pruning, they’re worth it.  Regardless of what you use, I prefer loppers with aluminum handles vs. wood.  They are lighter and cause less fatigue.  I also suggest that they have some type of cushioning mechanism where the metal parts come in contact with each other.

For large branches exceeding the capabilities of loppers, I suggest you use a pruning saw vs. a regular carpenters saw.  Because the larger branches will be heavier than others, they will need to be cut using a 3 step process as follows:

  • The first cut should be on the underside of the branch approximately 6″-12″ from the branch collar.  Because of the weight, you typically will only be able to cut 1/3 to 1/2 the diameter of the branch.
  • The second cut is approximately 6″ or more beyond your first cut on the top part of the branch.  As you prune, because of your first cut, the branch should separate easily leaving you with a short stub
  • Removal of this stub is your third cut just outside the branch collar.

Remember, when removing any large branches, make sure that your body is situated so that when the branch falls, it doesn’t fall on you.  I’d also like to add that I don’t recommend the homeowner remove any tree growth above 12′ – 15′ from the ground.  Beyond that it’s too dangerous.  Leave it to a professional arborist.

When should you prune?  This will depend on the plant and the needs for:

  • Flowering plants – If they flower before June 30, delay any pruning until approximately one month after they’ve finished blooming.  Why?  Because the flower buds were developed on last year’s growth.  Those that bloom after June 30 develop flower buds on the new growth.
  • Trees – it’s best to wait till new growth begins to emerge – this will aid you in identifying dead growth.  Because some trees, such as dogwoods, river birch, and maples are know as “bleeders”, they are best pruned after the trees have fully leafed out.  One more thought on trees – removing bottom growth usually results in the plant growing taller.  Doing the reverse will make the plant more compact.  However, never top a tree – it only leads to problems.
  • Palms – Only remove dead/broken fronds.  Don’t remove green fronds or make hurricane cuts – otherwise if they encounter strong winds and the center leader is broken, the tree will die.
  • Hedges – They usually require several prunings in Florida beginning in March with follow up pruning every 2 months till the end of October.  When pruning, use clean, sharp hedge shears.  Avoid straight vertical pruning, which results in the top and bottom of the hedge to be the same thickness.  Over time as the plants age, basel growth will cease and the bottom will become open.  It’s best to prune hedges so that the bottom is wider than the top and should resemble a pyramid with the top cut off.

What to do following pruning:

  • Don’t use any pruning paint.  If done, it will prevent pruning cuts from drying out and healing itself.
  • Always buy good tools and take care of them.  When I’m done, I’ll use a wire brush or sometimes a knife, to remove any sap/dirt that may have accumulated on the butting blades.  Once done, I’ll spray the metal parts with WD-40 and 3 In One Oil where metal contacts other metal.  I then wipe off any excess and return my tools where I originally stored them.  If I’ve been doing a lot of pruning, I’ll see if my pruners can cleanly cut paper.  If not, I’ll use a fine wet stone to sharpen them.

Click here to learn more about pruning landscape trees and shrubs.

Hope this helps.

About AskthePlantMaster

I have 50 years of horticultural experience, am currently a Master Gardener in Central Florida. In addition, I'm a Horticulture Instructor and retired Parks Manager and Arborist. I love plants and would love to help you with yours!
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