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Techniques for Proper Pruning: Part Two

By Chris Bond | Last updated: May 26, 2021
Key Takeaways

Giving your plants a haircut can add years to their lives and increase yields of healthy, disease-free fruits and flowers. In the first part of this two-part series, Chris Bond detailed the when’s and how’s of pruning. Now he takes a look at the selection and care of pruning equipment, as well as how to take cuttings.

Pruning requires a bit more finesse than just grabbing a pair of shears and hacking away at your beloved plants. Part one of this article detailed the when’s and how’s of pruning for different types of plants. Now that I’ve covered the basics, it’s time to get out there and do it! But first, there are a few more considerations when it comes to the equipment you use. This article will also cover cutting techniques for cloning your precious plants.

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Plant Pruning Tools of the Trade

Hand-held pruners.Hand-held pruners.

Pruners

A pair of hand-held pruners is an essential tool in the arsenal of the home gardener. Pruners will last for many years—even decades—if you take care of them. Paying the extra price for a decent pair upfront will pay dividends well into the future, as cheap pruners often need to be replaced on a yearly basis.

For most cutting, thinning and pruning work on perennials, shrubs and even smaller trees, pruners are the tool of choice. Avoid anvil-style pruners because they do not make a clean cut and create more surface area that has to heal in the wake of each cut.

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The cutting edge on bypass pruners, on the other hand, rests against the flat surface and allows for a clean cut on branches and plants. Smooth cuts heal faster, and are less likely to entice insects and diseases.

LoppersLoppers come in various lengths, with blades of various sizes.

Loppers

For larger jobs, loppers will be your best friend. Many of the same rules for pruner selection apply for loppers. Again, stick with the bypass-style cutting blade for best results. Loppers come in various lengths, with blades of various sizes to handle different brand diameters.

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Though more common with hedge shears, some of them also come with telescoping handles. Unless you are buying a name-brand tool, avoid these, as the handles are more prone to break than fixed-style handles.

Gardener making a cut with a pole pruner.Pole pruner.

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Pole Pruners

For pruning jobs that are out of reach, pole pruners come in handy. Some models have a serrated cross-cut pruning saw attached; others are simply a lopper head on a pole, with a long string to pull while making your cut.

These take a bit of practice to use, as the taller the pole pruner, the more difficult it is to see where you are making your cut. Extra care should be taken when using pole pruners around any electric lines, as the poles have a tendency to waver when fully extended.

Hedge Shears

Hedge Shears

Hedge shears are useful when shape-trimming and cutting back shrubs, grasses and perennials. While gas-powered and electric models are widely available and common, it is easy to take off more growth than you intended to with these tools. It is also common to unintentionally cut other items, such as electrical cords and light strings.

It doesn’t take long for arm fatigue to set in while using power trimmers and mistakes are easily made. Hand-held hedge trimmers take more time to do the job than electric or gas-powered trimmers, but mistakes are generally less severe. They also allow you to trim your plants in a natural shape as opposed to a geometric one.

Now that you have all of your pruning tools selected, you will want to make sure they remain in good working order for as long as possible.

Rusted pruning tools.Keep your pruning tools clean and lubricated to avoid rusting.

Plant Pruning Tool Care

Even the finest-quality pruning tools will rust, moving parts will seize up and components can break if they are not properly maintained. Don’t store pruning tools for extended periods without lubricating all the metal and moving parts on them.

This is especially true when putting tools away for the winter. Consider using mineral or cooking oils to lubricate your pruning tools, as using petroleum-based lubricants can damage plant tissues and cells, and the risk of exposing your food to petroleum is unnecessary.

Keeping your tools clean is also important, especially when cutting any diseased branches or limbs. Sterilize any portion of your cutting tools that will be in contact with plants to avoid spreading diseases.

Read also: Training Your Plants: Pruning, Staking and Trellising to Maximize Yields

At a minimum, this should be done between each plant to reduce the chance of spreading diseases, but I recommend going a step further and sterilizing between each cut on the same plant. Wipe or dip tools in a hydrogen peroxide solution. Pruning tools should also be sterilized before use and after long periods of storage.

Sharpening should be done annually, or more often if the tools are used heavily. Many hardware stores offer this service for a nominal charge if you are unsure how to do it yourself. They may also clean your tools while they have them if you ask.

Grower planting rosemary cuttings.Cuttings are the most common and easiest method of propagating woody ornamental landscape plants.

Plant Pruning Tips for Propagation

With a basic knowledge of pruning in hand (pun intended) and clean, sharp tools at your side, you can take pruning to the next level by starting your own clones. Some types of plants respond better to this than others, and it will likely be a matter of trial and error.

Softwood cuttings from most trees, shrubs and vines should be taken between the beginning and middle of summer, once that season’s new growth is beginning to or has already hardened off. Hardwood cuttings can be taken while plants are still dormant in late winter.

Before you make any cuts, prepare your medium first. Time is of the essence and you want a narrow window of time between when the cutting is made and when you place it in its temporary home to set roots. There are commercial blends available for clones, or try experimenting with a blend of sand, peat moss and perlite in equal amounts.

Read also: A Guide to Starting Plants from Cuttings

While making the cuts, keep a container of water with you to put the cuttings in. At no point do you want them to become dry. Make sure you keep them continually moist. This could be as sophisticated as a network of misting heads running on timers, or as low-tech as placing a humidity dome over top of them and misting them with a spray bottle. Whichever set-up you have, never let the cuttings want for moisture.

Before placing cuttings in their temporary homes, gently bruise or score the bottom of the cuttings with a pen knife or utility blade to encourage regrowth. The cuttings can then be dipped in a rooting hormone or in honey, which acts as a natural antiseptic, to protect the new plants while they develop roots.

An easier propagation method for those who don’t wish to attempt cuttings is to encourage rooting on lower branches by putting them in contact with the ground. This can be done by placing a brick or heavy stone on a lower branch. The new plant can then be cut off behind the point where roots have developed and transplanted after a full growing season of development. Happy cutting!

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Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional

Profile Picture of Chris Bond

Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.

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