How to Prune and Shape Your Houseplant - A Complete Guide

  • 7 min read

How to Prune and Shape Houseplants

For centuries, agriculture has utilized pruning and shaping techniques to boost plant growth, improve yields, and enhance the overall quality of crops. Although tools and methods have evolved over time, the fundamental principles of trimming away diseased or dead branches, managing plant size and shape, and stimulating new growth remain the same. In today’s world, pruning and shaping aren't just for farmers. With the rise of indoor gardening and the popularity of houseplants, these techniques have become essential skills for any modern gardener. Whether you have a small tabletop plant or a large backyard garden, knowing how to prune and shape your plants can make all the difference in their health and appearance.

In this blog, we'll provide a comprehensive overview of pruning and shaping for houseplants. We'll discuss the importance of these practices, when and how to execute them, and the various tools and techniques, as well as common mistakes that you should avoid to achieve your desired results. Whether you're a seasoned green thumb or just starting out, this blog is for you!

Pruning vs Shaping

Pruning and shaping are two related but distinct gardening techniques that are often used together to control the growth, size, and shape of the plant. Pruning and shaping can help to maintain plant health, promote vigorous growth, and enhance the plant's aesthetic qualities.

Pruning  involves removing parts of a plant to improve its health and appearance. This can include removing dead or diseased branches, cutting back overgrown stems, and removing any suckers or shoots that are growing from the base of the plant. Pruning is usually done to promote new growth, improve the shape of the plant, and increase air circulation.

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Pruning houseplant
Photo by Iryna Khabliuk

Shaping, on the other hand, involves trimming or training a plant to grow in a specific shape or form. This can include trimming back the tips of branches to encourage branching, removing unwanted growth, and guiding the growth of the plant with wires or stakes. Shaping is usually done for aesthetic purposes, such as creating a particular shape or design, but shaping also offers many health benefits for your plants. 

While pruning and shaping can be done separately, they are often done together to maintain a healthy and visually appealing plant. It's important to use the right tools and techniques when pruning or shaping a plant to avoid damaging it and to achieve the desired results.

[Benefits of Pruning and Shaping]Benefits of Pruning and Shaping in Houseplants

  • Promote new growth: When we remove unwanted or overgrown parts, we can redirect the plant's energy toward new growth. By cutting back stems or branches, we stimulate the plant to produce new shoots, leaves, and flowers.
  • Improved plant health: Removing dead or damaged leaves and branches can improve the plant's overall health by preventing the spread of disease or insect infestations. Moreover, shaping and training your plants to grow in a specific direction or shape helps to promote good air circulation and light exposure, which can prevent diseases and promote strong growth. 
  • Enhanced aesthetic appeal: Pruning and shaping help your plants grow in a specific shape or pattern, and thus enhance their aesthetic appeal and create a more cohesive design in your home or garden. 
  • Save space: Removing unwanted stems or brands and shaping your plants can help to save space. This is particularly useful for small gardens or indoor spaces.
  • Better pest control: Having your plants grow in a specific direction or shape can make it easier to spot and remove pests. 

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There are many benefits of pruning houseplants.
Photo by Dmitrii Marchenko

[When to Prune and Shape]When to Prune and Shape Your Houseplants

The optimal time for shaping and pruning houseplants is determined by various factors, such as the species of the plant, its growth habits, and the reason for pruning. In general, it is recommended to prune or shape houseplants during their active growing season, which is typically in the spring and summer for most houseplants. During this period, the plant is actively producing new growth and has a better ability to recover quickly from pruning. 

However, during a plant's dormant period, there are times when pruning or shaping may be necessary. For example, some flowering plants like roses may require light pruning before winter to maintain their shape and promote blooming during the next season. Additionally, if your plant has any diseases and the affected parts need to be removed, pruning can be done at any time to protect the overall health of your plant.

Pruning and Shaping Tools

Different tools are available for shaping and pruning houseplants, and the choice of tool depends on the plant's size, type, and desired result. 

Pruning shearis a common tool used for shaping and pruning houseplants. They are ideal for cutting thicker stems and branches. For smaller and delicate plants, as well as for precision shaping, small scissors or snipscan be used.

Other tools that may be helpful include hedge shears for shaping hedges and topiaries and loppersfor thicker branches. You also need good gardening gloves to protect your hands from thorns, sap, or other potential hazards.

In addition to pruning tools, stakes, trellises, and plant ties can be used to shape and train plants to grow in a particular direction or form. 

Don’t forget to:

  • Follow safety precautions.
  • Use only sanitized, clean, sharp tools to prevent damage to the plant and minimize the risk of spreading diseases.
  • Use the correct, appropriate tools for the shape and size of your plants, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. 

[Techniques and Rules]Pruning and Shaping Basic Techniques and Rules

  • Pinching is a technique that involves using your fingers to remove the tips of the plant's stems or branches. This encourages the plant to grow more compactly and produce more lateral branches. Pinching is typically used on plants with soft, pliable stems, such as herbs or succulents.
  • Cutting back is a technique that involves removing a portion of the plant's stem or branch, typically at a node or joint. This can encourage new growth and prevent the plant from becoming too tall or leggy. Cutting back can be used on a wide range of plants, including woody shrubs and trees.
  • Heading back is a technique that involves cutting the stem or branch back to a lateral bud or branch. This encourages the plant to produce new growth and can help shape the plant into a more desirable form. Heading back is typically used on plants that have become overgrown or have damaged or diseased branches.
  • Thinning involves removing selected branches or stems from a plant to promote better air circulation and light penetration. This can help prevent the spread of disease and improve the overall health and appearance of the plant.

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Pruning and shaping houseplants helps improve and encourage their health.

  • Topiary is a technique that involves pruning and shaping a plant into a specific geometric or ornamental form. This can be achieved using a combination of cutting back, thinning, and training techniques. Topiary is typically used on plants with dense foliage.
  • Training  is a technique to shape a plant as it grows to achieve a specific form or structure. This can involve using stakes, trellises, or other support structures to encourage the plant to grow in a specific direction. Training is typically used on plants that are trained to grow up a wall or trellis, such as ivy or climbing roses.
  • The 1/3 rule  means that no more than one-third of a plant's healthy foliage or stem should be removed at one time.
  • The three-cut pruning method is a technique used to remove larger branches from a tree while making a clean cut and minimizing damage to the tree. The three-cut method involves making an initial cut underneath the branch, a second cut from the top, and a final cut at the branch collar to remove the remaining stub.

[Pruning and Shaping Tips]Pruning and Shaping Tips for Different Types of Houseplants

Vining Plants:

Vining plants like Pothos, Ivy, or Philodendrons, are characterized by their long, trailing stems that can be trained to grow along walls, trellises, or other supports. To shape a vining plant, you can use training, pruning, or heading back techniques. Training is used in guiding the plant's stems along a support structure to achieve a desired shape or pattern. Pruning can remove unwanted stems or branches to promote new growth in specific areas of the plant, and heading back involves cutting back the plant's stems to promote branching and bushier growth.

Trees and Shrubs 

To shape a tree or shrub, for example, Ficus plants, Croton, or Chinese Money plant, you can use pruning, heading back, or topiary techniques. Pruning can remove unwanted branches or stems to promote new growth in specific areas of the plant. Heading back involves cutting back the plant's stems to promote branching and bushier growth. And topiary helps to shave the plant into a specific design, such as a ball, cone, or spiral, using careful pruning and training techniques.

Flowering Plants

When it comes to flowering houseplants like Kalanchoes, Peace Lily, or Christmas Cactus, there are some special considerations to keep in mind when pruning and shaping. The timing of pruning is important because it can affect when the plant will bloom. For plants that bloom in the spring or summer, it's best to prune them in late winter or early spring before they start producing buds. This will allow the plant to put its energy into producing new growth and flowers.

You should also remove wilted flowers to promote new blooms because many plants will stop producing new flowers if there are still old wilting blooms. 

[Common Mistakes]Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Using blunt or wrong tools: Using dull or incorrect tools can result in jagged cuts that are difficult for the plant to heal properly.
  • Pruning too close to the trunk or stem: Cutting too close to the trunk or stem can damage the plant and create an entry point for pests and diseases.
  • Removing too much foliage: Removing too many leaves can reduce the plant's ability to produce energy through photosynthesis
  • Not making clean cuts: When pruning, it's important to make clean cuts to minimize damage to the plant.
  • Ignoring the plant's natural growth habits: When shaping your houseplants, it's important to consider their natural growth habits. For example, trying to shape a trailing plant into an upright shape may be difficult and could damage the plant in the process.
  • Not pruning at the right time: Pruning at the wrong time of year can impact the plant's ability to grow.

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