Late Winter, Early Spring: Time to Prune Your Houseplants

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This rubber tree (Ficus elastica) is beginning to take up too much space. A good pruning will do it a world of good!

Don’t hesitate to prune houseplants that have gotten too tall, overgrown or lopsided or are taking up too much space: hibiscus, bougainvilleas, ficus, scheffleras, etc. Pruning will stimulate growth of new branches from the lower part of the plant, giving it a denser and more attractive shape. Even single-stemmed plants, such as dracenas and dieffenbachias, which are not naturally given to branching on their own, will produce at least one new stem when you chop off the top of the old one, at least bringing them down to a more acceptable size.

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Prune back to just beyond a branch that could replace the old one.

When you prune, don’t just cut all the branches to the same length, but instead try to follow the plant’s natural physiognomy. Usually that means cutting an overly long branch back to just above a secondary branch growing in about the same direction and that could therefore replace it. If it’s a plant that has no branches to guide you, like a dieffenbachia, make the cut right above a leaf or leaf scar so you won’t leave too much of a stump.

Always prune back more severely than you would have thought, because pruning stimulates the plant to grow back quickly and vigorously. That means a light pruning will only result in a plant that soon looks overgrown again. Harsher pruning will give a plant that looks good for at least a full year.

When to Prune

To stimulate beautiful dense growth without the plants stretching for the light, it’s always best to follow the plant’s natural growth cycle. That’s way it’s not wise to prune in late fall or early winter, just as the plant slows down for the year. That tends to stimulate wispy, weak growth. Prune instead in late winter or early spring (late February, March or April), just as the plant starts to wake up and begins to put on new growth.

An Exception

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You can’t cut back a single-stemmed palm without killing it.

Almost all houseplants tolerate pruning… except palms. Branching is simply not in their nature and cutting off the top of a palm will kill the stem. You can entirely remove a stem or two from a clumping palm, cutting them right to the ground, but when faced with a single-stemmed palm, the only pruning you can do is to remove dead fronds.201702020b

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