Flowering Quince From Pruning 101

Learn How to Prune like a Pro! Pruning 101

Pruning is a fun garden task but it can be daunting to get started with. For some people it is the gardening version of public speaking – terrifying! Fear the secateurs no more, my friends. We are breaking down pruning to the basics so that you have the skills to prune like a pro. How to Prune like a Pro - demystifying pruning by starting with the basicsThis is the first in a series of articles I’m writing to help your plants thrive with supportive pruning. Be sure to sign up for blog updates or our weekly newsletter to get updates on the latest posts in this series.


Reasons for Pruning

First, let’s start with reasons why you should prune and one big reason not to.

Good Reasons to Prune

  • To improve the health and vigor of plants
  • To encourage fruit and flower production
  • To modify shape, or direct growth
  • For safety reasons, for instance removing branches that could cause damage to structures and buildings and to avoid conflict with powerlines

Bad Reasons to Prune

To control the size or height of a plant. A better option is to thin a tree and help to shape it rather than topping a tree or fighting a plant when it’s trying to reach its mature size. See more in Supporting the Structure below.

Beautiful tree form (Pruning 101)

The Four Ds

The first rule of pruning is to follow the Four Ds. This means that you can safely prune anything on a plant that is dead, diseased, dying, or damaged. Even more, you SHOULD prune for the following reasons. Branches that fall into these categories are causing more stress to the plant left attached than if they are pruned off. Removing the Four Ds helps with the overall health of the plant. Even if removing those branches will look unsightly or unappealing, it’s better to prune them and allow the plant to repair without having to spend energy on healing.Branch structure (Pruning 101)

Supporting the Structure

Despite what many people do in their own gardens, trees never need to be topped. If you have a tree that is growing too large for the space it was allocated, then you have the wrong tree! The best course of action is to either consider replacing it or living with it. Topping a tree damages the overall shape of the tree, while encouraging the tree to send out a new leader to continue reaching its mature height. It also creates weak points in the tree which make it more susceptible to breakage.Please don't ever do this to a tree (pruning 101)

If you have a tree that is too large for the area that is planted you can always thin out the tree by removing some of the larger branches on the inside, creating a more airy and spacious look that may solve your problem. While this won’t affect the overall height of the tree, it could remove enough density that the tree fits into the allocated space better.

Follow the Lines

The most unappealing (and often pitiful) pruning is when a branch is cut to create a stub. Following the lines of the branches means noticing the natural flow and structure of the plant as it grows from the base or trunk and following that line out towards the end.Say no to stubs and more tips on pruning 101

There are two types of pruning cuts: heading cuts and thinning cuts. Heading involves cutting off part of branch to create a stronger branch and a larger number of smaller offshoots coming from that branch. Thinning removes a branch at its point of origin, which can be at the main trunk, a side branch, or even right to the ground.thinning vs heading cuts

Heading cuts stimulate new growth and thinning cuts prevent new growth.

If you’re looking to remove the branch but would like another branch to grow in its place, then cut the branch just above a bud. This bud will produce a new branch. If you want to remove the branch and not have regrowth, then cut the branch at the branch collar and do not leave any visible buds.Golden Fall Foliage (Pruning 101)


Obviously there are some exceptions to this rule like decorative, espalier, or fruit-tree pruning. Creating unnatural shapes in these circumstances can be done for aesthetics or to increase fruit production. A tree that has been pruned to take on an unnatural shape requires much more ongoing care and maintenance which I will write about in a subsequent article. For the majority of your home garden pruning needs, stick to the 4 Ds and aim for a natural shape and you have the tools to get started!

Garden Therapy Back Yard Play Garden Tour Espalier apple

Save the Trees

If you still aren’t convinced that supportive pruning is best for your garden and your trees, please head over to Plant Amnesty and read a host of brilliant and informative articles on pruning. I had the pleasure of meeting Cass Turnbull, Plant Amnesty President and Founder, at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. I ended up giggling and fawning like a crazed fan because I whole-heartedly support their efforts to “end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs.” Visit Plant Amnesty here.

For even more information on pruning, check out these posts:





About the Author : Stephanie RoseAn artistic gardener aiming to feed the body & soul through an urban potager garden & a community veggie plot in Vancouver.View all posts by Stephanie Rose

  1. Shelece
    SheleceMarch 14,16

    Could you post a picture of what a “yes” would look like for a heading cut? The “no” picture looks very similar to the animated heading cut tree picture posted.

    • Stephanie Rose
      Stephanie RoseOctober 6,16

      Hi Shelece, the heading cuts are much closer to the main branch, the stub that is left behind on the “No!” photo is stressful to the tree and looks terrible.

  2. Email Spike Review
    Email Spike ReviewMarch 25,16

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  3. DW
    DWJune 13,16

    Just a couple things came to mind. The pictures show species that have complete different growing habits and ways of survival. Second the choice of the pruning tool is one that will cause blunt trauma to the cut. It will cause fractures and torn wood that if used in a maple for instance will cause dead wood several inches down from the cut. The flowering quince could also use a tool more like the ones used for Bonsai since it grows in a clump style.

    A sharp clean cut from both sides and even v shaped into the wood will cure healthier and with out a ugly scar.

    Just a quick observation and its agreed that a little education on such a simple task that terrifies people is much needed.

    • Stephanie Rose
      Stephanie RoseOctober 6,16

      Hi DW, thanks for your observations. I have a few follow up articles on pruning and some additional resources as well that address some of your comments. I find that parceling the information off in a few bite-size pieces makes it a bit less overwhelming for those who are new to it. You can see more here: http://gardentherapy.ca/tag/pruning/

  4. domonick
    domonickSeptember 22,16

    Good post. I see it too often a good healthy plants growth stunted due to improper pruning. Just got a new set of soft grip titanium pruners pretty excited.

  5. Jackie
    JackieOctober 6,16

    We planted six Amur maples which have multi stemmed trunks. We planted them in a very large berm nine years ago. We had a well known tree company for our area cut the canopy back and shape them every year during late winter for the past three to four years. By summer they all have regrown and are now thinning out within because they have all grown together. They said to remove the dead branches and twigs within the trees. So we had them do that also. Unfortunately they are beginning to look sparse and look bad because the regrowth is always uneven on top and around the canopys. Not sure what to do and have become very frustrated and discouraged. Not just because of the shape but because of their extensive root system which is smothering many plants out underneath them. Should we have them removed and start over with another tree. If so, what type of small ornamental tree would look nice, keep its shape without us having to trim the canopy on a yearly basis. Their root system has also been a huge problem. We really are frustrated at being sold these six trees by a very reputable landscape company. Paid thousands of dollars for their plan and having them plant this berm. Not sure who to trust anymore. Discouraged and would appreciate any suggestions on a smaller tree that would allow other plants to survive and live within the berm. Thank you.

    • Stephanie Rose
      Stephanie RoseOctober 6,16

      Hi Jackie, that’s terrible! But I would say that it sounds like the company was trying to plant a hedge with the maples but that shearing the canopy of them is causing them stress. I’ve seen Amur maples pruned into a hedge but I have to say that they are much nicer when allowed to maintain their natural form. I’m often asked what to do about heavily pruned shrubs and trees because this kind of shaping is a lot of maintenance. I don’t know what your climate or conditions are so I can’t recommend a replacement. I would recommend contacting your local Master Gardener extension as they have volunteer Master Gardeners available to help you with problems just like this. Please keep me updated and good luck!

  6. j
    jApril 3,17

    Thinning and heading cuts does totally different things, thank you for explaining the difference.

  7. Ethan
    EthanMay 19,17

    Amazing Post! Keep up the great work.

  8. EJ
    EJAugust 31,17

    I don’t want to prune like a “pro” I want to prune correctly. When I think of “pro” pruning I think of just shaving around the edges with leaves the “inside” of the plant to end up with a lot of wood and no new growth. I want to prune in harmony with the growing habits of the plant and to prevent the dead wood inside look.

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