Not Pruning Is A Mistake

gloved hand in winter garden, pruning
(Image credit: Natalia Lebedinskaia / Getty Images)

Pruning can be confusing for a new gardener. When do you do it? How much do you remove? Which stems or branches should you prune? I have learned a lot over the years about how to prune correctly, and I’m still learning. With some wisdom gained I can advise newbies that the biggest mistake isn’t pruning incorrectly. It’s never pruning at all.

Pruning Can Be Scary

As a new gardener I just didn’t understand pruning. I didn’t realize that some plants desperately need it and what the benefits could be. I had some sense that you were supposed to prune, but it seemed complicated.

The thought of chopping back branches seemed like it could backfire. In other words, I was too nervous to take up the task. I worried I would end up with a bunch of dead stumps rather than healthier, bushier plants.

Overgrown, Thin Shrubs

We have a large bush honeysuckle in your backyard. I know, it’s invasive, but it was there when we moved in, and I didn’t know what it was then. It houses a lot of birds, which I like, but we never trimmed it for the first several years we were in the house, and it began to look pretty unattractive.

What happens when you don’t trim a large shrub like this it goes beyond out of control growth. That was problem number one. It began to engulf the Rose of Sharon next to it. It overhung the sidewalk leading to the back door, causing me to walk with a lean to get by it.

The other issue, which I discovered when I finally researched how to prune a shrub like this, was that the leafy growth became thin. Outside of a green, lush outer growth of leaves, the large interior of the shrub was all sticks and few leaves. The sunlight couldn’t penetrate to stimulate more leaf growth. The overall effect wasn’t very attractive.

Ultimately, we learned how and when to trim back a bush that had grown out of control. This includes removing some of the stems right down to the base and doing so strategically to allow light to get to the interior. The result today is a well-shaped, fuller, if still invasive shrub.

Leggy Plants

When I first started growing annuals in the garden, both in beds and containers, I didn’t know what legginess means. I knew that some of my plants looked spindly and bare, but I didn’t know why or what to do about it.

I now know this means the plants were getting leggy from lack of trimming. There are other reasons plants can get leggy, like low light conditions for houseplants, but for my outdoor annuals, lack of pruning was definitely an issue.

Leggy is the opposite of full and bushy. When the stems get long and floppy with leaf growth mostly at the top, you have a leggy plant. It’s not attractive.

Fortunately, pruning plants to stimulate fuller, bushier growth is easy. For most plants, you don’t even need any tools. Simply pinch off the newest bit of growth at the end of the stems. Pinch just above a leaf node and those two leaves will grow into two new branches. The result is fuller, denser growth throughout the plant. I do this throughout the growing season but especially early on.

Pruning can seem complicated for new gardeners, and yes, plants survived before there were humans to prune them, but we’re going for more than survival in our gardens. If you want attractive, healthy, and productive plants, learn how to prune and then get to it.

Mary Ellen Ellis

Mary Ellen Ellis has been gardening for over 20 years. With degrees in Chemistry and Biology, Mary Ellen's specialties are flowers, native plants, and herbs.