The importance of pruning

By Mike Lorenc, Conservation Garden Park

Pruning can be scary. Few gardening tasks make people more nervous than taking sharp tools to a favorite tree or shrub when they’re not quite sure how or why. Pruning is important. It’s one of the best things you can do for the health and appearance of your woody plants. Pruning can affect everything, including the plant’s size and shape, quality and quantity of fruit, overall health, and even safety. There are many resources to learn how to prune—classes, online videos, or even books. But understanding why we prune is every bit as important.

Improves plant appearance

Keeping woody plants looking neat and tidy requires a bit of pruning. Removing limbs that are growing in the wrong direction or getting too big helps to limit the overall size or directs the growth to where you want it. Younger stems on shrubs like dogwood look nicer than older ones, so pruning out the older ones encourage new, more attractive stem growth. Since most flowers grow on stems that are a year old or newer, pruning out older branches also encourages more and bigger flowers.

Protects plant health

Thinning out branches allows better air flow into the plant, which helps reduce fungal disease. More light reaching the center of the plant also helps keep limbs alive. Dead limbs still attached to the main plant allow virus, bacteria, or fungus to move in, so removing those limbs limits those pathogens’ abilities to gain a foothold. Removing branches that are rubbing against each other prevents them from becoming damaged and allowing diseases to enter the wound that rubbing creates.

Encourages fruit

Pruning fruit trees is the only way to get consistent, quality fruit production. Fewer branches causes a tree to push all of its energy into fewer but larger fruit. It also encourages more consistent fruit from a tree, like an apple, that wants to fruit every-other year. Pruning every year gives your trees thicker branches, making them sturdier for holding the weight of fruit, and keeps the tree shorter, making that fruit easier to harvest.

Increases tree safety

Safety might be the most important reason to prune, especially for larger trees. Large, dead, damaged, or diseased limbs can break and fall unexpectedly. These limbs should be removed before that happens. Limbs growing over the house or into power lines can cause damage that is expensive to repair if they come down in a storm. A well-pruned tree has a more stable branch structure, allowing it to better support its own weight. Thorny shrubs encroaching onto walkways can also be pruned back to a safer distance.

If you’re going to hire an arborist to do this important job, be on the lookout for the certified arborist seal. These arborists have had extensive training and are far less likely to harm your favorite trees or shrubs. But for you do-it-yourselfers, pruning classes are available statewide through your local botanical garden, including Conservation Garden Park, and through the Utah State University Extension. Learn more at