A heading cut is selectively removing a portion of the branch and is based on the phenomenon that when a branch is cut, the next bud(s) below the cut develop into branches. You can use this information to direct the plant’s growth — develop more branching and better structure. This is one of the most useful pruning techniques, especially when shaping a shrub.
**If you are unsure if this method is best for your plant, search for your plant here in our knowledgebase and scroll down to the maintenance section within the plant’s profile.**
When should you prune?
- Annually or as needed
- Pruning occurs in very late fall, winter, or very early spring.
- Do not prune in late summer or early fall because the new growth will not fully harden off before winter.
Why use heading cuts?
- Remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches
- Direct new growth upward and out from the center
- Remove crossing or rubbing branches
- Decrease height
- Increase or decrease density as desired
- Shape plant
Before making a heading cut, decide where you want to direct the growth. Is there an empty or thin side of the shrub? Are all of the branches growing inward? Is most of the growth only along the outer edge of the plant?
When a heading cut is made just above a bud it results in a shoot developing from the bud and often from the lower buds as well. When you make a heading cut, leave 1/4″ of a stub to keep the bud below from drying out. Leaving more than 1/4″ may encourage rot. Cut an angle, but no more than 30 degrees. Heading cuts can also be made to just above a side branch or outward-facing bud. It’s best to have branches that grow up and away from the center of the shrub to avoid congestion and crossing branches. The more congestion and rubbing branches, the more chance that disease or pests will move in. Good air circulation throughout the plant helps deter pests.
For holes or thin areas, look for buds pointing towards the gap, and cut just above the bud. This will encourage the bud to break and grow into the bare area. Keep in mind that up to 3 buds below the cut may turn into branches as well.
If the branches look like witch’s brooms (all of the new growth is along the tips of the branches), heading cuts can help disperse the growth. Selectively cut some branches back about 1/3 of the way into the plant to encourage growth further down on the stems. Remember that each cut encourages new branches from the buds. If you constantly cut the same place, that one area is going to get too dense and woody. You should alternate where you prune to avoid the Witch broom shape.
Heading cuts should be the pruning style used most as it gives you the most control and can be used on almost all shrubs.