Pruning Houseplants

Some house plants never need pruning,  because they are sold as ‘preformed’, well shaped plants and remain the same size and shape all their lives. Then, too, many house plants, such as chrysanthemum, are short lived and discarded after flowering, while others, such as palms and cacti, do not benefit from pruning. There are, however, cases when pruning will help create a lovely plant, or improve an ailing or over-large one.

pruning-houseplantsThere are two basic types of pruning. Pinching out of growing tips is small scale pruning, and the plant looks much the same afterwards. Cutting back is more severe, with up to half – or sometimes more— of the plant being cut away. Some house plants, such as fuchsia, benefit from both, according to the time of the year. Pruning is also part of formal training, and this is covered separately.

Hard pruning involves cutting back up to half the main stem of a leggy plant, and encourages new growth from the base, making a bushier, more compact plant.

Pinching out

Much less drastic is pinching out, or stopping, in which growing points are nipped out between thumb and forefinger.

Pinching out, or stopping, involves nipping out the growing point or points of a plant. This encourages dormant buds just below the snipped-out point to grow into side shoots, so the plant becomes bushier and carries more flowers and foliage than if left to form a single, leggy stem. Coleus, pelargonium and pinching-outShrimp Plant are just a few of the plants that benefit from pinching out.

  • Pinching out is easy and quick to do. Using your thumb and forefinger, a sharp knife or scissors, remove the top 6-15mm (¼-V2 inches) of soft growth, back to a set of buds or leaves.
  • Wood stems can be shortened using secateurs or a sharp knife. Cut back to just above a leaf or bud.
  • Side shoots can be pinched out, too, to encourage subside shoots to grow; fuchsia is pinched out at several stages, as it grows from a small cutting into a well formed bush.

Cutting back

Cutting back can make a leggy, bare-stemmed plant bushy; a lopsided plant symmetrical; or an over-large plant more compact. Rampant climbers, such as Passion Flower and Chinese Jasmine, that become untidy and tangled and plants that make a lot of annual growth, such as the Italian Bellflower, pelargonium and fuchsia, benefit from annual cutting back.

Use secateurs or a sharp knife to cut the woody stems or branches. Cut back to just above  a leaf, pair of leaves or a bud pointing in an outward direction. Don’t leave stubby ends as they will die back.

Shortening woody growth by 1/3 to ½ is usual, while very old, diseased or awkwardly placed growth can be completely removed. If a climbing plant is trained to cover a wall, leave the main woody framework and just cut back the young side shoots.

When to prune

Spring, when new growth starts, is the best time for pinching out. With house plants such as coleus and Wandering Jew, that need frequent pinching out, the task may need doing right through the growing season.

Early spring is the best time for cutting back house plants, such as fuchsia, plumbago, Bottle Brush Plant and hibiscus, that flower on new growth. House plants that flower on older wood, such as oleander, Paper Flower and stephanotis, need cutting back immediately after flowering. This gives the new wood enough time to ripen to produce next year’s flowers.

Most green plants, such as abutilon, Spotted Laurel and False Aralia, are best cut back in spring. Some tough evergreen plants, such as myrtle, box and ivy, can be pruned at any time of year. Dead or diseased growth should be cut back to healthy wood as soon as seen.

In good growing conditions cutting back will encourage healthy growing.

Making pruning cuts

  • Do not cut too close to the bud, as you are liable to damage it.
  • Angle the cut away from the bud, so that any water that collects on the cut surface is directed away from the bud.
  • Do not cut too far away from the bud, as the stem will die back and leave an ugly stump.

Tidying up

Pruning can improve the look of house plants that are leggy, lopsided or too large. Here’s how, when and why to prune, to keep your plants looking their best.

Deadheading – the regular removal of faded flowers – keeps a plant looking attractive, prevents energy being wasted on the production of unwanted seed and, with some plants, encourages the production of even more flowers. When tidying up your plants, cut away any dying growth, as well, such as yellowing stems and withered leaves of Umbrella Plant.

If you are training a house plant as a standard, remove any unwanted side shoots that appear.


My Variegated Euonymus has one branch with all-green leaves. What should I do?

Prune the branch right back to ..where it joins the stem, otherwise the stronger, all-green growth will take over your plant and the variegated growth will suffer. Do the same with Variegated Box and Castor Oil Plant. Variegated Ivy may turn green from lack of light.

What types of house plants shouldn’t be pruned?

Plants that grow from a single crown, such as African Violets and bromeliads; and those that don’t produce new growth from leaf nodes: palms and ferns, for example.

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