The Benefits of Pruning

Pruning benefits plants and their individual settings

By Steve Piskor
Penn State Master Gardener ©2015
PA Certified Horticulturist (PCH)

February - At this time of the year, when herbaceous plants are fast asleep, many of the woody plants in our gardens look very forlorn. However, this is an ideal time of the year to look at how pruning might improve woody trees, shrubs and vines in the upcoming growing season.

It is especially helpful when deciduous plants are leafless and you can easily determine their branch structure. Many gardeners are intimidated by the prospect of pruning woody plants. But if you keep in mind what pruning is, and why it is done, you’ll be better able to care for these permanent investments in your landscape.

trees in winter


Pruning is defined as purposeful removal of any part of a plant — branches, twigs, foliage, flowers, fruits, seed pods and roots.

Pruning is necessary for a number of reasons:

• To improve the health of a plant by removing dead, diseased or damaged parts.

• To control the size of a plant so that it is in proportion with the other plants and hardscape in a garden.

• To train young plants to achieve a particular form. This is particularly important in shaping very young trees to fit into the landscape as they begin growing to maturity. The form and function of a plant can be modified utilizing specialized training, such as, bonsai, topiary and espalier.

Bonsai ficus

• To influence fruiting and flowering. Selected pruning techniques are used to control quantity, quality and size of fruits and flowers.

• To rejuvenate old woody plants that have become unattractive and/or outgrown their allotted space in the landscape.

• To prevent personal injury or property damage.

Many gardeners are wary of making cuts of any kind on their plants. The good news is that it is difficult to kill a plant via pruning. In most cases the plant will recover by adding new growth; the important take-away is to embark on pruning with some knowledge of proper technique.

tree trimming from a ladder

Proper pruning skills require time, patience and experience. Start with simple tasks, and over time, you will find that pruning is not as traumatic as you might have thought. You will make mistakes, but that is part of the learning process.

If you want to undertake a pruning project, but are not sure how to begin, the following resources are great starting points:

• Your local extension office. The Allegheny County Extension Office hosts a Greenline (412-473-2600) to answer gardening questions. Calls are answered weekly from October through March. From April through September, calls are answered Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

Nittany Lion
Penn State Nittany Lion

• Extension offices throughout the country provide excellent materials on pruning. Two references from the Penn State Extension include:

Pruning Landscape Trees

Pruning Ornamental Plants

• Friends and neighbors who are experienced gardeners.

• There are some excellent books on pruning for gardeners. Whether you head to the library or an online vendor, check out the ratings and reviews. Note that some pruning recommendations have changed over time, such as the notion to “paint” over pruning cuts, which is now regarded as incorrect. Keep that in mind if you’re consulting an older publication.

• Garden centers.

• The Internet. Be sure to visit several sites to ensure that the information you are seeking is consistent. Concentrate on sites that are affiliated with learning institutions or public horticulture entities.

Pruning is an area of horticulture that can’t be addressed in a short article. A series of articles will be featured in this space aimed at demystifying the topic of pruning for beginner and intermediate gardeners. The next article in the series will recommend pruning tools that all gardeners should have in their toolbox.


Part One: Benefits of Pruning

Part Two: Pruning Tools

Part Three: Primer on Pruning


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