How To Prune A Plant To Death

A lot of my clients share a very common fear: that they'll prune their plants to death!  I hear this over and over again, and I have to admit I felt the same way before I spent time working for a garden maintenance company. 

I have good news for my clients (and anyone afraid to commit herbicide). For the most part trees and shrubs are very hardy, and while improper pruning might mean your plant doesn’t bloom next year and/or looks ugly for a season or so, you’re probably not going to kill it!

Now, that said, there ARE two ways you CAN actually prune a plant to death, and, unfortunately, they’re both sort of common.  

The first way to kill a plant is to over prune it.  This is really tempting when a shrub or tree is severely overgrown! But remember that the plant needs its leaves in order to absorb sunlight and convert that sunlight into what it needs to thrive.  If you remove too many leaves, you mess with that process and the roots can’t get the energy they need.  The rule of thumb is to remove no more than 1/3 when you prune. 

But keep in mind, even when you over prune, you probably won’t immediately kill the plant—you’ll most likely just force it to send up a bunch of new shoots from the roots and stem.  The new growth will be weaker, and more likely to be damaged in bad weather.  And, overall, the plant will be stressed, making it more susceptible to disease.

A better solution? Gradually reduce the plant, giving it time to recover and adjust before you continue.

The second way is to repeatedly shear the outermost layer of leaves.  That’s what lots of people do when they want the plant to maintain a certain shape, like a square or a circle.  While this might have nice curb appeal, it does harm the plant because every time you prune off that outer layer, you force the plant to produce lots of new, tiny branches right near the outermost part of the tree or shrub. 

These tiny branches are the only ones that will produce new leaves, and soon you end up with a thin layer of green growth. That’s not sustainable, and will eventually kill the plant.  Plus, it doesn’t allow air to circulate within the plant, creating an inviting environment for pests and diseases.

A better solution? Well, avoid shearing your plant or pruning it into geometric shapes, BUT, if you just can’t help yourself. . .then when you prune, reach deep into the plant, and cut off a few larger branches.  This will open up the plant, allowing more sunlight and air in.  It will also encourage more growth from the middle of the plant.

So, there you go! Two ways to prune your plant to death, and two ways to keep them healthy and thriving!

Linda KelsoComment