How to prune shrubs

CandideZA
Published on August 29th 2020
16
A hand holding a flower
Shrubs give structure to a garden, serving as decorative borders or fences, and providing colour and interest for many years. To keep your shrubs in shape and growing vigorously and healthy, regular pruning is key.
Pruning shrubs at the right time and with the correct techniques rejuvenates old, established bushes, improves the plant’s structure and definition, and stimulates flower and fruit development.
Tap the article below to learn why pruning is an important skill to add to your skill-shed.
With a few basic tools and general pruning rules, any gardener can tackle the task of pruning shrubs. We do encourage you, however, to further read up about the specific shrub that you would like to prune, as different species have different pruning requirements.

General tips on pruning shrubs

  • Look at the plant and decide on the size and shape you want, and bear it in mind throughout the pruning process.
  • Make the cuts at a 45-degree angle to allow rainwater to run off. Water sitting on a flat top invites fungus or disease.
A small bird perched on a tree branch
  • Prune just above the branch collar to allow the wound a better chance to callous over and seal.
  • Cut out dead, damaged or diseased stems right down to where they reach the roots or main stem.
*Tip: Ensure your pruning tools are clean and sharp enough to leave a straight, clean cut with no ragged edges.
  • Remove any crossing stems to prevent damage or injury which could create an entry point to disease.
  • Pruning just above a node: a chemical is stimulated which signals to the plant to shoot out from there and produce new leaves, stems or flowers.
  • Pruning below a node, the stem will die back down to the next node and may continue down the stem.
A close up of a green plant
Node: the point of attachment of one or more buds from which leaves or branches emerge.
  • Hard pruning stimulates new and vigorous growth in shrubs - count the nodes up the stem from the base; leave two nodes to allow for dieback, and prune just above the third node.
  • An annual prune keeps the shrub in shape and encourages new leaves and flowers the following season - cut just above the node needed to maintain the shape.

When and how to prune

Renovative pruning is best carried out when the shrub is dormant, but the ideal time to prune any established shrub will depend on its flowering habit and the age of the shoots on which flowering occurs. If a shrub is pruned at the wrong time of the year, you will remove all the flowering wood and forgo the spectacular display of blooms.
Deciduous flowering shrubs
  • Shrubs that flower on growth developed in the current season (new wood): Cut back fairly hard late winter or early spring before shoots develop to promote new growth in early summer for flowering.
  • Shrubs that produce flowers on the previous season’s growth (old shoots): Prune directly after flowering to give new growth time to develop before overwintering and flowering in the following year.
Evergreen shrubs
Most evergreen shrubs don’t need formative pruning or thinning, however, all shrubs benefit from cutting out dead and diseased growth and shortening any excessive long shoots.
  • Light pruning: In spring, lightly prune the whole shrub to encourage bud break further down the stems. Later in summer, prune harder into the plant to create the desired shape and size.
  • Renovative pruning: Prune in late winter and early spring, or, for early flowering plants, after flowering.
*Important: Remember to feed and mulch in spring for vigorous new growth after renovative pruning.
A plant in a garden

How to:

Prune young shrubs
  • Prune shrubs early in development to establish a well-shaped shrub with vigorous and balanced growth.
  • Deciduous shrubs often grow lots of shoots so thin them early on.
  • Correct asymmetrical growth by lightly pruning longer shoots and hard pruning weak stems.
Rejuvenate old shrubs
  • Some shrubs, if not pruned regularly, can accumulate old and dead wood in the centre - cut them back during the dormant season.
  • Cut out diseased and crossing stems, and thin out half the number of remaining stems.
  • Take cuttings in case you have uncertainty about the shrub's survival after pruning.
A person standing in a garden

Grow your pruning confidence by digging into the articles below!

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