brilliant orange Fall color on serviceberry shrub
Curing the Gardening Phobia

2nd Lesson in Pruning: Cut Out Extra Canes

Do you have a shrub that seems to have legs? That is, it’s creeping into a different spot in your yard? It’s got so many little “shoots” that the position is actually moving?

A couple of things could be happening here. And without going into too much science—I want to keep your life simple—the issue with your traveling shrub is basically that it constantly sends up shoots looking for light and water.

You could let it go…but ALL those little shoots diffuse the shrubs’ food. Get it? It’s giving itself waaay too many mouths to feed, and ultimately, it either looks messy, or might start giving up.

Trees and Shrubs

You know a tree when you see one. Right? That’s pretty easy—one fat trunk, leading up to numerous branches which create a lot of shade. You’ve known about them since pre-school and made your first leaf book.

A shrub, on the other hand, is supposed to have lots of “trunks,” called canes. But not too many. So how many is too many? You will be the judge of that, in your own yard, based on the type of shrub. Not to worry. You don’t need to learn everything about all shrubs before you can go out and prune.

One Rule

You guessed it…there is a rule that you can follow. Never cut out more than 1/3 of a shrub at any one time. NO NEED TO WORRY. This number is an estimate. You can eyeball how much is 1/3.

That means when you want to cut out some canes because the shrub seems to be sprouting everywhere—and you want to make it look neater—select no more 1/3 of the canes to cut. And part two of the rule: Always cut as close to ground-level as you can get.

How to Choose

If you have a shrub that has been neglected for many years…and looks wildly overgrown—believe me, I’ve had those!—choose some of the older canes to get rid of. This might be hard because the older canes could be in the center of the clump, and hard to get to.

Here are some simple decision-making steps to follow:

  • Choose older canes that are criss-crossing over others and pushing them down. Cutting these out will help the shrub stand upright.
  • If an old cane is inaccessible because it’s in the center of a clump of canes, choose your total 1/3 of cuts to be a combination of new and old canes. Cut out some newer canes along the outside edges of the shrub to expose the older criss-crossing canes, and then cut those as well. If you’ve reached your 1/3, then stop for this season, and cut out some more next season. For a badly overgrown shrub, it can take a few seasons to clean it up.
  • Always cut out canes that are wandering too far from the center of the plant. This keeps the shrub attractive. It also keeps it healthy by keeping the plant-energy focused.
  • You can cut some newer canes. Choose new ones that are near slightly older canes—giving the slightly older cane an energy boost.
  • Always maintain a mix of older and newer canes.

That’s it! It’s super-easy.

Let’s Go Shopping

well-used, dirty hand pruners with soft grips

One other fun item. It might be time for you to buy another pruning tool. It’s best to add 1 new tool here and there to your garden tool collection.

It might be time to buy a pruner. That’s a hand-held, heavy-duty-looking scissors. It’s for cutting thinner canes, or branches—thinner than ½ inch.

Short pruning saw with black hand, red hinge, and curved blade

How about a hand-held, pruning saw? You can get them at your local big box store for about $40. Or, your local garden center would be happy for your business, too. You need that for some thicker canes. Don’t get distracted by the long-handled pruning saws. Those are for making cuts in trees. You don’t need that. You are looking for a short-handled saw, like the one below, and/or a pair of hand-held loppers, shown in the video.

What’s the difference between a nursery and a garden center? Garden centers are usually more inclusive than nurseries. Often, nurseries carry only plants. Whereas, garden centers have tools, fertilizers, and garden accessories as well.

Watch It!

Here’s a super-short video to show you how to prune your shrub of unwanted canes.

A short, speeded-up video to show you how it’s done!

Come on back for more super-easy gardening instructions. If you liked this post, please share it with friends. Or share some pictures here!

Or share it with your favorite reluctant gardener!

2 thoughts on “2nd Lesson in Pruning: Cut Out Extra Canes”

  1. Very helpful! I bought a small forsythia last spring. Its canes are going every which way with many crossing. This will help me to pick and choose which ones to prune.

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