It might seem counter-intuitive, but we can actually make our plants look fuller and healthier by selectively trimming them. Knowing how and when to prune your plants is key to maintaining a lush and healthy collection of greenery in your home and garden.

Why should I prune my plants?

Many of the reasons for pruning are appearance-based, such as encouraging new growth and branching, or preventing your plants from taking over your living space, or simply trying to keep them in a certain shape or growing in a certain direction. But there are also health-based reasons. Cutting away dying or dead plant material can help against attracting insects and also prevent mold and bacteria from establishing a presence. By getting rid of these struggling parts of your plant, you are also encouraging it to spend its energy on new healthy growth. 

How should I prune my plants?

Most importantly, always start with clean and sharp pruners or scissors, and if you know that a plant you’ve just pruned is not healthy, it’s a good idea to wash your pruners again before moving on to the next plant. You wouldn’t want to inadvertently spread disease to a healthy specimen. Rubbing alcohol is a good way to sanitize the blades before and after use. 

With many houseplants, you can let your eye be the guide as to how you should prune your plants. For example, it’s better to cut just above a set of leaves so that you don’t leave behind a bunch of naked stems. If an entire branch or stem needs to go, cut as far down as you can against the trunk or the soil. 

That being said, it is possible to damage certain plants by pruning improperly. For example, cutting off the top of a tree fern’s trunk  could cause it to die. So always take a moment to research specific pruning techniques for your particular plant. This goes especially for perennials and trees in your garden. The well-being of some of these plants depends on cutting back in a certain way and at a certain time of year. 

When is the best time?

Generally, the best time for major plant pruning is when they are actively growing and getting the most light, which is during the spring and summer. You can safely prune as much as 25% of your plant’s volume/foliage during this time without causing too much stress. Doing the same thing during the winter, however, will be much harder for your plant to deal with, and it will spend a lot more time in the “recovery phase,” looking less than perfect. 

However, mini-pruning can be done at any time of the year. Things like pinching off yellow leaves, snipping away a few stems or vines, and other smaller aesthetically-based tasks can be done daily or as needed to maintain your plant’s healthy appearance.

Also keep in mind that leaf loss is a normal part of the lifecycle of plants. As new leaves grow, older leaves will naturally die back. It's best to allow the leaf to fully die off before removing it so that it can transfer it's nitrogen to the new growth.