Giving Your Houseplants a Trim

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This is the 2000th blog on the Laidback Gardener website. That’s the equivalent of some 8,000 typed pages of information about plants and gardening, all designed with the idea of making plant care fun and easy. And with one blog appearing each day, we’ll reach 3,000 articles soon enough! 

Thank you all for your support!

Larry Hodgson
The Laidback Gardener

And now, back to the subject of the day!

Giving Your Houseplants a Trim

This shefflera is about to get a serious trim! Photo: gardenmanage.com

Not all indoor plants grow exactly the way you’d like. There might be a wayward branch, a crooked or leggy stem, thin growth or other flaws. Or it’s just getting too tall. Fortunately, these can be cured with a bit of judicious pruning. 

Cut back the offending part or parts with a pair of pruning shears. Cut them shorter than what you eventually want, as pruning usually leads to rapid new growth and soon the plant may well have outgrown the space allotted to it once again.

This is shearing: not something you’d do to a houseplant, unless it’s an indoor topiary. Photo: harrodhorticultural.com

If the whole plant seems to need a good shearing, don’t. Shearing means cutting all the branches back to the same length, much as you would shear a hedge, i.e. with pruning shears. But most houseplants aren’t used as hedges and will look more natural if you stagger the pruning, leaving some pruned branches a bit longer and others a bit shorter. You might want to cut some branches to half their original length and others to one quarter theirs, for example.

Do sterilize the pruning shears between each cut, most easily done by wiping the blades with rubbing alcohol. 

The One-Third Rule

Calculate you can prune back most plants by one third without harming them; more than that can be harmful. Of course, many will grow back even if you prune them down to a mere stub, but that’s risky. 

Where to Cut?

Honestly, you can cut most houseplants anywhere, but if you don’t want to have a lot of brown stubs hanging around for years, cut just beyond a node. A dormant bud is hiding underneath the node and will soon spring into action if you prune back the branch just above it.

Cut just beyond a node. Photo: Megos1286, garden.org.

Check any stem and you’ll see a mark where there is a leaf or was once a leaf. Those marks are called leaf nodes. By pruning just beyond the node, leaving just a short length of stem, that will leave only a small nub, scarcely noticeable.

Don’t cut so close to the node that you damage it, though.

If the stem hangs down, cut it below the node rather than above. Photo: http://www.thespruce.com

For most plants, you’ll be cutting just above a node, as plants generally grow up. But if it’s a hanging plant, you’ll cut just below the node, because that’s where the dormant bud will be.

When to Prune

Late winter and early spring is the best season for pruning. Photo: haas-innengruen.de

If you want the plant to recover rapidly, the best season for pruning foliage plants is just as or before it starts its yearly growth spurt, so in late winter or early spring. From late February through early April in the Northern Hemisphere. Late spring and summer pruning is the second-best choice.

Fall and early winter are usually not good seasons for pruning, as the plant may send out new growth while days are short and the sun is weak, leading to pale, thin, unhealthy growth (etiolation). 

Flower plants require a bit more attention. You don’t want to cut them back when they are just about to bloom—at least, not if you want to see them flower!—as that will suppress the flower buds. So, for flowering plants, the best time to prune is immediately after they finish flowering.

And what if your flowering plant always has flower buds, yet needs pruning? A hibiscus (Hibiscus sinensis) that’s reaching for the ceiling, for example? You’re going to have to sacrifice flower buds at some point, at least if you want to keep the plant under control, so the best time is to prune everbloomers is when they’ll recuperate the fastest, and that would be—as for foliage plants—late winter or early spring. 

What About Dead Leaves?

You can remove dead or dying leaves at any season. Photo: http://www.realestate.com.au

Dead leaves, yellowing leaves: removing those isn’t really pruning and the plant won’t react to their removal, so you can remove them as you see them. At any time of the year. 

On many plants, the plant meets you halfway and is already starting to slough off the dying leaf when you clean up, so you can just pull it off. Or it may beat you to the point, leaving the dead leaf lying on your living room floor. 

There are always exceptions (many palms for example) where the dead leaf will hang on for dear life, so pulling won’t always work. You’ll have to cut off such dead or dying leaves at the base. 

Faded Flowers Have to Go

There is no particular season for deadheading. Remove the flower stalks as the flowers fade. Photo: gardenwithdiana.com

Likewise, deadheading (cutting off flower stems after the last flower has faded) is always fine, at any time of the year, for all plants. This is something you should do for most plants, unless you want them to produce seeds or if they’re grown for their attractive fruits.

One exception is the hoya, also called wax plant and porcelain flower (Hoya carnosa and others): do remove the dead flowers if they don’t fall off on their own, but leave the stub they grow from alone, as it will rebloom in years to come.

And Brown Leaf Tips?

You can cut off brown leaf tips at any season. Photo: Matteo, gardening.stackexchange.com

Brown leaf tips can likewise be cut off at any season and, in fact, tend to occur most frequently during the winter, a season when you normally wouldn’t be otherwise be pruning … but it might be worthwhile looking into why the tips of the leaves are turning brown in the first place. For more on that, read How to Prevent Brown Leaf Tips. After all, an ounce of prevention… 

Don’t Prune These Plants

But back to “real pruning.” There are a few plants you shouldn’t prune, other than removed dead leaves, leaf tips and flowers. Palms, for example, simply don’t branch and cutting back the stem will kill it. And you can’t really prune plants that have no real stem, like African violets, sansevierias, spathiphyllums and most orchids, other, of course, than deadheading and removing yellowing leaves.

On the other hand, most plants that produce branches are obviously good subjects for pruning.



Afterthought
The stems you cut off while pruning make great cuttings!


Pruning houseplants: it really isn’t a big deal, but it can make a difference between a plant that’s only passable and a real star!

7 thoughts on “Giving Your Houseplants a Trim

  1. Willa Wick

    Thank you Larry for your continual support to the gardening world. I often use a paragraph or two (acknoweldging the author of course) for our monthly Hort Society newsletter.

  2. John Wilson

    I am sorry to say that I have not been around here long enough to have had the pleasure to have read all 2,000 posts, but the ones that I have read have all been worthwhile, informative, and pleasurable. Thank you, Larry!

  3. Some people have serious difficulty pruning, both with houseplants, and with what grows in the garden. Remember those overgrown pothos that people used to pin to their walls? They were just huge two-dimensional thickets of wiry bare stems, with a few leaves at the tips.
    All species of ficus bleed than nasty latex sap that stains carpet or upholstery. They should be pruned in a shades spot outside, or on newspaper where the sap will not damage anything. Philodendron selloum, and perhaps other big philodendrons, bleed caustic sap that can damage furniture too.

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