Should You Prune? My Approach to Pruning in the Garden

There are different schools of thought when it comes to pruning plants.

pruning bush with clippers

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Pruning is something that can confuse a lot of gardeners. Many gardeners become consumed by questions about when to prune specific plants and how to do so. But there is, in my opinion, a much more important and overarching question, and that is whether you should prune much at all.

Traditional Horticulture's Take on Pruning

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to pruning in a garden. The most common idea is that we should prune according to relatively strict guidelines on an annual basis, or even more frequently, for most trees and shrubs. 

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and other gardening authorities group plants according to their pruning needs, and gardeners can look up particular plants to find out when the best time is to prune and how specifically the job should be done.

There are plenty of variations, with some plants needing little pruning or no pruning at all. But there are many plants for which specific practices are recommended, and often in traditional horticulture there is a view that it can be a bad thing to deviate from the basic "rules."

Natural Farming's Take on Pruning

The second school of thought takes its cue from from Masanobu Fukuoka's "do nothing" approach— farming, or natural farming, involves letting nature take the reigns and intervening as little as possible. Fukuoka set out five principles of natural farming in his book, "One Straw Revolution," and one of these five principles is no pruning.

Those who agree with letting nature rule argue that natural ecosystems can do perfectly well without our intervention in the form of pruning, and that we can manage our gardens along the same lines.

In organic gardening and farming, we talk about mimicking nature and working in harmony with natural systems in low-impact and sustainable ways. But pruning is a particularly interesting topic. How often do we really need to intervene with natural plant growth in this way? And how frequently is it genuinely beneficial?

Should You Prune?

For me, the most important thing in making this decision is how we quantify benefit. Benefits that are purely aesthetic or for human reasons do not always justify the intervention, nor are they worth the effort. 

I personally fall somewhere between the two positions outlined above. I do prune in my forest garden and in other parts of my property, but not nearly as much or as often as traditional practitioners may suggest. 

I prune primarily with the health and wellbeing of the plants in mind, as well as the overall health of the ecosystem. I do not have a lot of time for pruning that is only aesthetic, or simply to keep things neat. 

When I prune, I see myself as fulfilling an ecosystem service that, in the wild, grazing ruminants or other animals may provide. Gardens cannot be fully wild. These are semi-natural spaces and so I think they need a semi-natural approach—requiring some interventions, but not as many as traditional gardeners often think. 

In a food-producing garden, there is a balance to be achieved between ecosystem and human needs. For me, that means that, while working with nature, I also alter and amend the environment as sensitively as possible to make sure that it meets my needs in terms of food and other resources.

Through pruning and other such jobs, I can, like other creatures within the natural ecosystem, manipulate things a little for my own needs, while also taking steps to safeguard the health of the system as a whole.

Treading that fine line between embracing nature and making the most of the space may mean that some pruning is required. I would always begin by removing any dead, damaged, or diseased material, as in traditional advice.

But when it comes to further pruning, I take a much more holistic and less rules-based approach. I may occasionally thin canopies to let more light through to plantings below, or remove lower branches to open up space for the herbaceous layer. But often, I will let things get a little wild and unruly here and there, and spend more time observing than interfering in my garden. 

One final thing to mention is that pruning, in my garden, is also a form of harvesting. Woody material can be a useful yield. Pruned wood has many uses, and whatever does not make its way back into the system never goes to waste.