Pruning isn’t just something that happens to you when you sit in the bathtub too long; it’s also necessary for good plant structure. There are four basic techniques for pruning deciduous plants. They are:

Pruned holly

This holly was cut down to its base in an effort to rejuvenate it.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Rejuvenated holly

After one year, there’s excellent regrowth, and the holly is well on its way to becoming a beautiful plant again.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Heading back pruning

These hydrangeas were pruned using heading cuts.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

  1. Heading back. This technique is used when we want to “head” a plant in a certain direction (hence the name). We most often head back to control the size of a plant or keep it symmetrical. In other words, heading back is done mostly for aesthetic purposes. When heading back, we remove top growth back to a node (the place on the stem from which leaves and branches emerge), without removing too much of the plant at any time. Since heading back usually involves the removal of only a few branches, it can be done just about anytime of the year. Forsythias are often pruned this way.
  2. Renewal. In renewal pruning (also called “thinning”), we cut out old, unproductive branches, usually over a period of years, both to control the size of the plant and encourage new growth. In renewal pruning, we remove old branches or stems entirely down to the ground, although we sometimes cut back to lower nodes. Lilacs are often pruned like this.
  3. Rejuvenation. In rejuvenation, all stems are cut down to ground level. This is usually practiced on old, neglected shrubs that respond and regrow quickly. It’s also used on shrubs that produce flowers on the current year’s wood, such as butterfly bush. It was previously thought that many species would not respond well to this kind of treatment, but work conducted in Europe seems to prove otherwise.

    Rejuvenation pruning is usually done in late winter or early spring. When trees are cut to the ground in this manner, it’s called “coppicing,” and gives us our word “copse,” meaning a dense growth of bushes (or a thicket).
  4. Shearing. Hedges are sheared, meaning that the top growth is removed down to a random point, without regard for stem reemergence. Common hedge plants such as boxwood and photinia respond well to shearing. Other plants, such as forsythia, don’t respond well to this pruning technique – and just look terrible after it’s done.

Before beginning to prune any plant, decide what your goal is. Do you want to remove branches that attack and/or annoy you while you’re mowing or make it difficult to get out of your car every evening? Or would you like to totally remake your quince bush? When pruning, remember that you can always cut more, but you can never cut less! So cut a little, then stand back and observe your work. (Beginners, practice on some of your least-favorite shrubs first.) Use sharp tools, and don’t be afraid to make the cut!