Pinching and pruning

Pinching and pruning within organic garden

Many volumes have been written about the subject of garden pruning. It might be defined as an essentially creative form with practical applications, one that utilises a series of technical skills. There are many ways to approach a pruning task, the differing philosophies and techniques often become the source of heated debate amongst gardening enthusiasts. While I don’t recommend getting too hot and bothered about the topic, I do suggest you gain a basic understanding of pruning and pinching techniques.


Pinching is the removal of unwanted growth by the fingers, usually when such growth is tender enough to readily succumb. Recall the expression “nipping something in the bud”. It provides a verbal illustration for the action and intended outcome with respect to pinching. The bud or tender section of growth gets removed by a pinching or nipping action. This is designed to alleviate future problems that might potentially arise; excessive flowering or branching imposes a penalty against the health and vitality of immature plants. A portion of additional growth is thereby sacrificed for the longer term welfare or health of the whole (plant).

Pinching is also the technique that can be used to shape or encourage an immature shrub into a favourable design. This may be pursued with respect to an ideal standard for the species as well as the overall mood and theme of a particular garden setting. Selective pinching will stimulate the development of side shoots and assist to create the dense, compact growth preferred in many ornamental shrub varieties. When executed properly, pinching leaves a negligible scar and will not harm the plant.


Pruning refers to the removal of a portion of a plant by means of some cutting instrument such as secateurs, loppers, or saw. There are several reasons for pruning. It is seen by many gardeners as a convenient means for introducing order to the garden. Creating a series of pleasing shapes and the space that will enable each plant to grow according to its requirements. Pruning can be carried out to limit the growth of vigorous plants that may outcompete or damage others nearby. Pruning is often used as a means to control the quality and amount of foliage, flowering and fruit each season.

Fruit trees such as apples, peaches, and cherries are routinely pruned to maintain vigour and maximise the yield of fruit. Roses, lavender and many other ornamental shrubs require regular pruning to ensure vibrant and prolific flowering each year. Another reason for pruning is to remove any growth that is potentially dangerous. This can include sections or branches that are physically damaged, dead, decaying, diseased or showing evidence of pest infestation. Pruning effectively clears away rubbish as in the expression “getting rid of dead wood”. The artistic approach to pruning a tree or a hedge involves creating harmonious balance with surroundings, enabling the finished specimen to appeal to the eye with its new shape and overall sense of proportion. This approach requires skill, experience and often proves, in practice, more difficult than it sounds.

The best course is to follow the three P’s: planning, perspective and patience. Particularly for beginners, it is worthwhile spending some effort in the planning of the task. Begin by soliciting advice or expert opinion, remembering this will vary widely depending on who or where you consult. With digital technology it is convenient to take several images that can then be viewed by gardening contacts from nurseries, organic garden centres, or the local organic growers association. Once there is some suggestion of the overall shape or design required, a quick sketch or two will consolidate this and also provide a reference point when cutting. This helps with perspective, which is the ability to stand back and view stages of progress from a distance. While sawing or cutting in close contact, it is rarely possible to accurately evaluate the overall effect. Like the sculptor working in marble, the risk is always that of removing too much. When it’s gone, it cannot be easily replaced so there’s a need to regularly step back and look.

A carefully pruned tree or hedge will look different (hopefully better) several weeks after the cutting. Individual species have varying styles and rates of return growth. Be patient during the recovery period and try to avoid indulging in trimming or any other adjustments. The plant needs time to recuperate and it will be advantageous for future attempts to learn how the pruned growth rebuilds itself. Fiddling around the edges will restrict the knowledge that comes from experience and a patient approach to the task.

In practice, the sequence of cutting is ruled by constraints beyond aesthetics or mere appearances. To protect the plant and garden alike, priority should be afforded to the removal of all dead, dying, diseased, displaced or deformed branches. Following this, an attempt should be made to eradicate sections of poorly controlled or crowded growth including branches that intersect or entwine against the general pattern or shape of the plant.

The best pruning results are inevitably obtained from a combination of sound technique and sharp, well maintained tools. When using secateurs, the thin blade should be positioned toward the trunk or major branch side of the cut. This provides the cleanest cut and prevents the layers of damaged tissue that can otherwise occur beneath the line of cutting. When removing entire branches, look for the collar, a bulging spot where the branch first emerges from the trunk. Most branches can be safely pruned back to the collar. This practice of preserving the collar will leave a smaller wound with more intact bark to assist healing. Sensitive species can have any wounds protected with a special sealant that is available from organic suppliers and tree surgeons. When removing finer shoots, cuts should be made cleanly and directly above a bud, say five millimetres. This promotes rapid healing and protects future growth.

Fruit trees and flowering ornamentals should generally be pruned in winter when bare. When there is a very large pruning job, particularly those involving contractors or commercially sensitive stock, it may be feasible and expedient to obtain a preliminary report from a tree surgeon or specialist. During the task, it is always good practice to wipe pruning blades with methylated spirits to disinfect them before moving between plants. This prevents the opportunistic transmission of any plant disease.

Category: Basics, Gardening


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