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Pruning for Productivity, Health, and Beauty

Nothing more than a well-timed pinch can help you coax plants into bushiness, lankiness, or anything in between. Learn how to prune like a pro.

| April/May 2019

Photo by Getty Imgaes/8ran

Have you ever wondered why most plants have a dominant shoot that rises higher above the others? It’s all about raging hormones. You can use this to your advantage if you want to modify the shape of a plant through pruning.

“Apical dominance” is the term scientists use to describe why plants reach for the sky. Apical dominance is the result of auxin (AWK-sin), a hormone that’s produced in the tips of plants’ growing shoots or at the high point of their stems. Auxin travels down each stem and sets off a chain reaction that puts the brakes, to some degree, on growth of side shoots, giving the uppermost growing point (the apical point) of the stem the upper hand in growth.

Side shoots mostly arise from buds along a stem, and whether a bud grows out into a shoot depends on how close the bud is to the source of auxin. The closer it is to the source, the greater its inhibition will be, although the exact degree of inhibition at a certain distance depends on the particular plant. ‘Mammoth Russian’ is a sunflower cultivar that grows as a single stem capped by a large flowering disk. This is an extreme example of apical dominance, with no side shoots at all. At the other extreme is one of the shrubby species of willow that sprouts side branches freely all along its growing shoots.

Pinching back shoots on tomato plants encourages them to become stockier and bushier.
Photo by Getty Images/Helin Loik-Tomson

Even within a single species, plants vary in their tendency to express apical dominance. Fuchsia cultivars ‘Beacon Delight’ and ‘Blue Ribbon’ express strong apical dominance, so they’re easier to train upright into miniature trees (called “standards”) than are trailing cultivars, such as ‘Basket Girl’ and ‘Blue Satin,’ which have weak apical dominance. The latter are more at home with their branches sprawling over the edges of hanging baskets. Only with the help of a stake and diligent pruning of side branches can ‘Basket Girl’ be coaxed to take on the shape of a miniature tree.

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