Nothing quite strikes fear in the heart of gardeners than taking a set of blades to a plant.
We want our plants to flourish, yet, weirdly, the one thing that helps plants grow better and healthier is cutting bits of it off.
What parts though? Where do you cut plants when pruning? Above the leaf node on a soft-stemmed plant, or a fraction of an inch from a branch collar on a fruiting tree?
Where Do You Cut Plants When Pruning?
Where you make the cuts depends on why you’re making the cuts. For deadheading, cuts are made a quarter inch below the flower head. Pruning plants intended for propagation requires cuts to be made a quarter inch below a leaf node. Cuts above the leaf node are done to prevent new growth. Pruning trees and shrubs requires a combination of reduction cuts, thinning cuts, and heading cuts. Where the cuts are made depends on the direction of growth buds. Inward facing buds should be removed with cuts made below the node to prevent inward growth that would hinder light penetration.
A Note about Nodes (and Internodes)
Nodes are on every plant, whether it has soft-stems or woody branches. The nodes are the part on the stem (or trunks) where new branches shoot out.
Internodes refer to the stem section between nodes.
When pruning to keep your plant healthy, cuts should always be made a quarter inch to a half inch above the leaf node.
The only time cuts are made below a leaf node is for propagation – cutting part of a plant to start a new plant.
Making cuts for propagating plants is always done at least a quarter-inch below the leaf node.
When you want the growth to be on the same plant, make the cut above the node.
The Different Types of Pruning Cuts
Reduction cuts are used on trees and shrubs to restrict height. These should only be used on young trees so this is the earliest type of pruning cut to use.
The advantage is that it will limit height making future pruning more manageable.
The major downside and the reason this type of cut shouldn’t be made on mature trees is that it leaves the plant more susceptible to decay.
Nodes on trees are different from those on soft-stemmed plants.
Nodes on branches have collars that stick out from the main trunk or the leading branch. This is part of the branch’s defense system.
When you cut outside of the branch collar, the wood wound heals faster.
Cutting flush to the bark of a tree removes the protective branch collar, leaving the plant susceptible to infections or insect damage.
When making reduction cuts, since it is cutting the branch down from the top to restrict height, there is no branch collar. As such, any reduction cuts you make will take longer to heal.
Younger trees that are actively growing can handle these types of cuts, but they should be used with care. The main purpose of reduction cuts is for training younger plants by controlling the direction of growth.
Heading cuts are made to reduce the size of branches. As the branches are established, there will be growth buds. Making a cut right above growth buds prevents branches from growing longer or taller.
On fruiting trees such as apple trees and pear trees, there will be growth buds and flowering buds.
Flowering buds produce fruits. Growth buds produce wood.
Growth buds are shaped like teardrops, whereas flowering buds are round and swollen.
When pruning branches on fruiting trees, cut about a quarter-inch below a growth bud to stop it from growing.
Cuts on these should be angled to 45-degrees to prevent water from sitting on an open branch.
The direction the growth bud is pointing to is the direction it will grow.
Any inward-facing growth buds should be removed to prevent too dense a growth.
As a guideline, make cuts with buds facing outwards above the node.
Buds facing inward should be cut below the node because inward growth isn’t healthy on trees or shrubs.
Thinning cuts are a type of structural pruning as it lessens the weight on the main trunk of trees.
On shrubs, such as when pruning roses, thinning cuts are needed to increase light penetration. They’re also great for letting you control the direction of growth shoots.
Unlike heading cuts which reduce the length or height of a branch, a thinning cut removes the entire branch right back to the main branch.
Large branches with a lot of weight should be pruned in three stages to prevent the branch from falling and accidentally tearing healthy bark.
When removing large heavy branches, cut it back by at least one third first, then make a second cut 12 to 15 inches shorter, then a final cut a quarter inch from the branch collar.
The Right Pruning Tools for the Job
Bypass pruners have two sharp curved blades that work like scissors. These are better suited to pruning live plant tissue because both blades cut like scissors.
Anvil pruners only have one sharp blade that pushes against a flat plate, similar to pushing a knife through something against a flat object. These are better suited to pruning dead wood.
Loppers have longer blades and handles and need two hands to use.
Loppers are better suited to thicker branches up to two inches in diameter.
Pruning saws are suited to branches thicker than two inches.
The type of pruner to use depends on the thickness of the material you’re cutting.
As a guideline for which type of pruner is best for the task you need to do, use your thumb as a guide.
The average thumb is one inch in diameter.
If a branch is smaller than your thumb, hand pruners should be suited.
Wider than your thumb, use a pair of loppers. Unless it’s over two inches in diameter, in which case, the pruning saw would be the better tool for the job.
Plant Pruning FAQs
Will making too many cuts when pruning kill a plant?
Over pruning can cause plants too much stress, which can indirectly kill them. It won’t happen immediately. To avoid stressing plants, the recommended maximum to remove from any plant, shrub, or tree is no more than a third of its total size.
When pruning trees and shrubs with thick branches, does a sealer need to be applied to dress wounded wood?
Healthy wood will heal on its own. Pruning sealers have been known to have the opposite effect they were intended for. Instead of sealing out potential infections, they can seal in moisture creating more problems than they prevent. It’s better to use safe cutting practices on trees that leave the branch collars in place so that the wound can callus over.