Pruning can be one of the most daunting aspects of gardening for green-fingered beginners, and with so many complex rules, specific times of year and elaborate “how-to” diagrams to get your head around, I can sympathise. But if you are feeling a little overwhelmed by it all, here’s a little secret: pruning isn’t strictly necessary. Even if you never do it at all, your plants will be perfectly healthy and still produce flowers and fruit.
After all, in nature, there aren’t squirrels trained to know exactly the right angle to trim roses, at the precise time of year and with full knowledge of where to make each cut. It can even seem quite counterintuitive: surely if you want to grow plants, hacking away at them defeats the purpose. Well, to clear up the confusion, here is an express guide to how a few snips of the scissors can make a huge difference.
One of the key things that can block out light from reaching the plant is its own leaves. So removing any congested growth or crossed branches in shrubs or trees will prevent them from competing with each other for the sun’s rays, boosting growth. Creating a more open canopy can also prevent pests and diseases, by allowing better airflow and light access. This is particularly beneficial on fruit trees, and can improve the flavour and even nutritional value of the developing crop. Because of this improved light access, for instance, apples on the top half of the tree can contain twice the antioxidants of those on the bottom.
Another straightforward way pruning can improve fruit quality is to simply reduce the total number of fruit shortly after they set. This “thinning” process prevents the plant’s resources from being spilt too widely, so the remaining fruit are larger, sweeter, better coloured and with proportionately smaller cores and seeds.
Pruning doesn’t just manipulate the architecture of the plant, but its internal chemistry, too. Snipping out the tips of long branches causes the production of growth hormones at dormant buds lower down, resulting in bushier, fuller growth. This can make the plant more resilient to wind, have a better visual balance and ensure flowering branches are at eye level rather than towering overhead.
Finally, plants not only capture light through their leaves, but breathe through them as well. Through these tiny breathing holes called stomata, they also lose water vapour. It’s the vacuum that’s created from this water loss that pulls the water up from the roots. This means that on plants with root damage, such as ones that have been recently repotted and, of course, in cuttings, pruning off some of the leaves can be a useful way of preventing too much water loss while waiting for new roots to establish.
So here’s the bottom line: don’t be afraid of pruning! You technically don’t need to do it at all, but given the huge range of benefits just a few snips of the secateurs can give you, there are few gardening techniques that give such great payback for so little effort.
Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek