What to Prune this Autumn

Published on October 20th 2019
A close up of a sawn off branch on a lichen covered tree.
At this time of the year, the opportunities to get out and enjoy the outdoors can often be dampened by the good ol' Blighty weather. So when those dry days come around, it's time to grab your coat and head outdoors. There's still so much to see and enjoy in the garden, especially if you fancy some hands-on work with your plant babies.
Small amounts of pruning to some woody plants will encourage better performances next year, and boost our satisfaction of a job well done.


This year's loganberries, summer fruiting raspberries and blackberries were produced on last year's stems. Now is the perfect time to cut these old stems back to the ground to make space for new growth. To get the best results from each plant, only keep three or four of the most vigorous stems and cut away everything else.
Tip Removing the top 15cm of these strong stems back to an outward-facing bud will encourage more side shoots which will produce fruit.
If you wanted to improve the size of fruit on your trees, then as soon as the leaves have fallen, you can start removing some of the oldest or overcrowded side spurs. Reducing the number of spurs should result in more substantial and better quality fruit on the ones that are left. Cutting back the leading stems back by a half will also concentrate the tree's energy into the remaining spurs.
A close up of a branch being cut out with a blue handled pair of shears
A good pair of loppers will leave clean cuts that heal quickly.
More extensive or older branches can also be removed to open up the centre of the plant. This will allow a greater airflow, which helps to reduce the possibility of fungal infections.
I recommend stepping back and checking the overall shape in between each cut, so you don't over prune one side and have to live with a crooked plant.

Decorative leaves

If you're growing any of the above for their decorative leaves, it's possible to encourage larger leaves by annually cutting them back to around 30cm above ground level. These healthy and vigorous growers will quickly put on lots of growth next year. By getting out with the pruning saw now, there will be less of a rush in spring when everything suddenly bursts into life.
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Newly planted

Some, like those listed above, benefit from formative pruning as soon as they have been planted.
Autumn is an ideal time to plant deciduous shrubs and trees, allowing them to get roots established before Winter, ready to burst into life in Spring. A newly planted shrub will only have a small root system to anchor the above-ground growth, and the taller plants could easily suffer from wind damage. To find out how best to protect them from the wind, read my article from last week:
Shortening the tall and robust stems will remove the plant growth hormone from the tips, encouraging the plant to redirect its growth to side buds.
Removing weak, inward or downward growing stems will also help to produce bushier plants with a much stronger framework.

Showing off trunks

Some trees have fantastic bark which deserves to be shown off. If you have any of the five plants above, now is an excellent time to cut away any lower branches to reveal the bark. This kind of pruning is called lifting the crown (foliage) above our heads to expose the 'legs'. It also makes it easier to walk underneath.
Two muti stemmed Silver Birch trees pruned to show off their white trunks.
Low-level branches have been cut away from these multi-stemmed Silver birch to show off their stunning white trunks.
If your tree is young, only remove the side branches that are over two years old. You can cut away one-year-old side-shoots, but only a third of them. Pruning away too many can weaken the trunk, leaving it unable to support the foliage above. You can shorten the remaining side shoots to three buds, and next year these can be removed entirely to leave a beautiful straight trunk.
Tip Cut above the slight ridge where the stem protrudes from the trunk. The ridge helps the tree callus over the cut, keeping out diseases.
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Catching up

If you didn't get round to pruning the shrubs listed above when they finished flowering in late Spring or early summer, don't panic. You can do some tidying now and catch up with the regular prune next summer. Pruning will help to keep them producing flowers where we can see them, instead of at the tips of tall stems way above our heads.
Cutting a third of the oldest stems all the way back to ground level will encourage new stems that will flower in a couple of years at a height our senses can enjoy. If you repeat this annually, you'll keep your shrubs from growing into dense clumps and free up space to squeeze another plant purchase into your garden.
A close up of the flames coming from a campfire
Ash from the burnt prunings can be added to the compost heap
By enjoying the process and only doing a small amount whenever we can, we'll soon have our plants ready to face the new year. The prunings also can make an excellent bonfire, perfect for roasting marshmallows on.
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