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trimming indoor plants

Guide to Pruning & Shaping Your Plants

Pruning is defined, according to the dictionary, as “trimming (a tree, shrub, or bush) by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to increase fruitfulness and growth.”

Whether you’re just starting out with caring for plants, or you’re managing an indoor jungle, pruning plants is an activity that everyone can do at one point or another. It’s good for your plants for a variety of reasons: it helps keep pests and disease away, it prevents your plants from getting too sparse, and it allows your plants to retain a shape and size suitable for indoor spaces. In this journal post, we’ll cover everything you need to know to successfully trim and shape your plants, why it’s important, and different techniques to use for both vines and trees to encourage intentional growth.

The Basics

Successfully trimming and shaping your houseplants doesn’t require anything more than a good, clean pair of gardening shears or scissors and some general knowledge of how plants work.

Pruning and cutting away leaves, stems, and branches — in most cases — doesn’t harm your plant. In fact, it’s healthy to do this every now and then. Plants will benefit from a good trimming the most during spring and summer, which are their active growing seasons. Trimming can be done to both vines and trees to encourage new, fuller growth along the plants, as well as to get rid of any yellowing or dead sections. Whether you’re wanting to maintain a certain size, encourage branching, or achieve a certain look, pruning is one of the best ways to gain control over how your plant is growing.

Most houseplants can be pruned and cut, however, there are certain kinds that care should be taken with— these include most palms and tree ferns. Dead fronds and leaves can be removed, but these plants never form branches, so the top areas of growth shouldn’t be cut off, otherwise it will effectively kill the plant.

Pulling Away Yellow or Brown Leaves

Trimming or plucking away yellowing or dead leaves is an easy way to help prevent any unwelcome plant pests from settling onto your plant, which are attracted to decaying or dead leaves more than healthy ones, and they are more likely to appear on a struggling plant.

Pulling away yellowing or dead leaves is also a good way to keep your plant looking its best. When a leaf is yellowing, let the leaf fully turn yellow before pulling it off. When a leaf is on its way out, the leaf loses all of its chlorophyll (the molecules which make the leaf green), and the plant absorbs any leftover nutrients from the yellowing leaf. The leaf should be able to be pulled off easily without any kind of resistance. Any leaves that have turned brown and crispy can also be pulled off of a stem or branch without harming your plant.

Trimming off brown leaf edges will not harm the plant and is a way to make the overall plant look more appealing

An introduction to pruning houseplants

How to Prune Houseplants

The Spruce/Melina Hammer

While you don’t have to worry about regularly pruning indoor plants like you would many outdoor plants, at some point you’ll have to get out your shears for some cleanup. Maybe you need to cut away dead leaves or branches to keep the plant presentable. Or perhaps you’d like to encourage a more balanced growth pattern. Some runaway plants might be eating up your living room while others might look spindly and in need of a trim. Whatever the reason, it’s important to know how to properly prune your houseplants, so you don’t create undue stress for your windowsill companions.

When to Prune Houseplants

Houseplants should typically be pruned at the beginning of the growing season, which is late winter or early spring for many varieties. However, woody indoor plants are an exception to this seasonal rule, requiring year-round pruning to remove dead leaves and branches.

A good rule of thumb for flowering species is to prune them just after they have finished flowering. If you prune right before they bloom, you’ll be removing unopened buds that would otherwise turn into flowers.  

What You’ll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Pruning shears
  • Kitchen scissors
  • Gardening gloves (optional)

Materials

  • Mature, overgrown houseplant

Instructions

Observe the Plant

Take a step back from your houseplant, and look at its structure and shape. Notice whether it is growing spindly, looks fuller on one side, or contains any diseased or dying foliage. Also, check for areas of potential new growth, known as “latent buds.” Buds typically occur where the leaf joins the plant stem.

Determine Your Tools

If the plant’s branches are thick, such as those of an indoor tree, use pruning shears. If they are slender, kitchen scissors may give you a cleaner cut.

Remove Dead Matter

Clip or pinch off dead leaves and stems. If stems have rotted at the root, pull them out, and make sure to let the soil dry out before the plant’s next watering.

Deadhead the Plant

If you’re working with a flowering houseplant, remove all spent flowers by pinching them off or clipping them back as close to the main stem as possible.

Make Your Cuts

Make judicious cuts to encourage new growth. Cut just before a leaf node. Or when cutting back larger stems, cut as close to the main stem as possible. However, do not remove more than 25 percent of the plant.

Houseplant Pruning Tips

Proper pruning requires an understanding of the plant’s growth pattern. Plants grow from the tip down, meaning new growth emerges from the dominant bud at the end of a branch or stem.

To prune a plant to encourage bushy new growth, snip off the dominant buds on select stems, staggering the cuts to encourage varied growth. Trim some branches back by a quarter, others by a half, and still others all the way back to their base. This way, when the plant leafs out again, the random growth pattern will fill it out.

Deadheading is a type of pruning that simply involves removing any dead flowers. As a plant blooms, it puts energy into its flowers at the expense of new growth. Even as a flower is dying, it still consumes energy from the plant. So to prolong the blooming period and encourage healthy growth, deadheading is often necessary.

When pruning, cleanliness is important. Any cut made to a plant’s tissue can expose it to disease. So keep your pruning instruments sharp, and clean and disinfect them between each use with a mild bleach-and-water solution.

Most houseplant cuttings can be saved, rooted in a cup of water, and then planted to form new houseplants. Succulent clippings can even be propagated by planting them directly in a pot of soil and keeping it moist. After a few weeks, you should have new plants growing.

Working With Vines

Pruning vines is very similar to pruning general houseplants. However, it involves a little more work. Indoor vines should be encouraged to grow along a support with any wandering stems pruned back. With vines, you might have to do a substantial pruning in the spring or summer to cut them back to a manageable form. Many vines are notoriously rampant growers when they’re healthy.

Plants That Shouldn’t Be Pruned

Some houseplants rarely need pruning, and others should never be pruned at all. Palms and Norfolk Island pines both form a terminal dominant bud but do not possess latent buds. That means removing the dominant bud will kill the plant, so it’s best to let these species be.

Similarly, many varieties of orchids cannot be pruned beyond removing dead flower spikes. Do so at the point where the spike comes out of the leaves, and hopefully you’ll see blooms again after several months.

Runaway houseplants can take over your home. But before you hack them back, learn how to trim plants to ensure healthy new growth. ]]>