Pruning vs. Thinning: Why the Difference Really Matters


When I began my journey into the world of horticulture, I knew a lot of new Knowledge I would have to acquire. However, I never imagined how hard it would be to tell the difference between these two words; Pruning and Thinning.

Pruning is defined as the selective removal of certain parts of plants, buds, branches, roots, and seedlings to shape the way they grow. For the most part, Thinning is the removal of individual plants or sometimes parts of a plant to create room for growth for other plants.

In reality, Thinning is sometimes considered as being a type of pruning. Pruning is usually done for decorative, corrective, or regenerative purposes. Thinning, however, is typically done to improve air circulation, help ensure the survival of some plants, and improve the health of other trees.

Understanding the Fundamentals of Pruning

Pruning can be seen as a form of preventive maintenance for your garden or large orchid. It involves removing certain parts of a tree or plant. In some cases, it consists of removing a particular piece of a plant altogether to maintain or correct its structure.

Pruning usually involves the selective removal of branches, plant parts, leaves, blooms, and roots, including removing dead or dying parts of a plant.

Many farmers and horticulturists even say pruning is one of the best long-term investments that you can make for plants and property.

What are the Benefits of Pruning?

There are several benefits to pruning trees or plants that are woody plants in nature, like trees, shrubs, and soft-tissue plants. Here are some of those benefits:

Pruning helps in Maintaining or Reducing Plant Size

Pruning can be used as a method to prevent a plant or tree from overgrowing its designated space.

Also, by pruning early and frequently, you significantly reduce the need to cut overgrown or overcrowded plants drastically.

Pruning can also help you make more effective use of your space by allowing the growth of other plants under or around the pruned plant.

Removal of Undesired Growth can be done through pruning

By pruning to remove weak or overcrowded plant growth, you can help to encourage more vigorous plant growth. This also helps to improve the symmetry of your tree or plant, which can help with aesthetics and balance.

Improved Plant Health is doable with pruning

By pruning dead, diseased, and broken branches, you are aiding your plant’s health and helping to maintain the shape and vigor of the plant.

Pruning can cause Flower and Fruit Stimulation

This has been one of the significant advantages of pruning trees.

Properly pruning a fruit-bearing tree can help to foster the stimulation of flowers and fruits.

By removing old and faded flowers, as well as fruit clusters from your tree, you can easily promote flower buds for the new season.

Reviving Old Plants can be done through pruning

It is funny that many horticulturists don’t use this to their advantage for their old trees. Pruning can help rejuvenate and restore mature plants’ health and even help them bear new fruits.

Directing Plant Growth is doable with pruning

Pruning can especially be used to shape the direction in which a tree or plant grows.

Pruning Helps to Reduce Health Hazards

By pruning a tree, you are effectively reducing the health and safety hazards that come from weak branches hanging off the side of a big tree. Branches falling on cars or people is not a good look for your tree.

Types of Pruning

There are several types of pruning, depending on the type of tree (nuts and fruits), plant, or seedling. However, for the sake of this article, I will state four basic types of pruning.

Some of these pruning types have sub-divisions, but the overall idea is the same.

CleaningThinningReductionStructural Cuts
This type of pruning is done as a means of fine-tuning a tree or plant. In this method, simple cuts are made to remove dead, diseased, damaged, or feeble branches. This is usually done to give a tree or plant a more polished look and to help prevent further infection.This means, in this instance, the process of cutting limbs all the way back to their branch of origin. This method is usually used to ensure that a tree with a full vegetative canopy can get enough sunlight.It means cutting limbs all the way back to their branch of origin. This method is usually used to ensure that a tree with a full vegetative canopy can get enough sunlight.This type of pruning is a combination of the other types of pruning mentioned in this list. This improves the structure of a tree or plant and also ensures the long-term health of a tree. This type of pruning can also be used to revive an old fruit-producing tree by promoting new growth. A structural cut is also called training.

With all this talk on pruning types, it is also important to cover just what type of cuts is preferable during this pruning process.

Types of Cuts in Pruning

Ideally, two major cuts can be performed while pruning—namely, Thinning Cut and Heading Cut.

Thinning CutHeading Cut
A thinning cut is a type of cut that goes all the way back to the strong node of a branch that can take an overgrowth with interruption or shock.This is a cut to a node that is not developed enough to grow strongly and smoothly to replace the growth eliminated by pruning.

It is heavily advised that most of the cuts you should make during your pruning sessions should be thinning cuts.

When to Use Thinning Cuts in Pruning

Here is a list of some of the situations that might require a thinning cut (in the pruning sense):

  • Training a climbing rose by removing branches between scaffold branches on fruit trees.
  • Pruning mature ornamental trees or shrubs for aesthetics.
  • Completely removing low branches for clearance purposes.

Of course, let us also cover just when to do heading cuts.

When to Use Heading Cuts in Pruning

It has been said that most pruning cutting styles that must be done should mainly be thinning cuts, but there will still be instances when heading cuts are much needed by the situation.

  • Cutting back a one-year-old shoot that is currently growing back to bud to enhance growth.
  • Cutting a branch back to being a stub or lateral branch small enough to the point that it can no longer be the main branch.

Covering all these cutting methods and benefits, we should also, of course, cover possible tools needed for this process and the upkeep and maintenance needed for them.

Tools Required for Proper Pruning

When it comes to pruning, getting the right tools required for your pruning session is the first step to proper pruning.

Tools for Pruning

Shocker, it turns out that there are different types of pruning tools! Check the table and choose one best suited for your pruning activities.

Hand shearsPole PrunersLooping shearsHedge Shears
Hand Shears are useful for cutting branches that are up to 0.6cm in diameter. There are two types; Scissors and Blade/Anvil types.The pole pruner is useful for cutting branches that are beyond your arm’s length. It would help if you did not use a pole pruner with a metal handle close to a utility line.Looping shears are useful for cutting branches that are up to 3.81cm in diameter. Your looping shears must have strong but lightweight handles.Hedge shears are probably the most common type of shears seen around. Hedge shears are used for clipping the edges of new growths into formal shapes.

We want to add and note that hedge shears are not useful for pruning large branches or pruning intended to allow natural growth.

With tree pruning, however, shears and smaller tools would just not cut it, figuratively and literally speaking. It is best to instead opt for pruning saws to cover diameters over 1.5 inches. As covered in this recent article on straight vs. curved pruning saws, two differing pruning saws. Their benefits and usage will be explained in greater detail there, which will be useful to know before attempting to prune your trees and buying equipment.

Tool Maintenance for pruning

Ensure that the tools you use for pruning are of the highest quality that you can afford, as the health of your beloved plants relies on it. Please keep them in the right condition with the use of regular lubrication and cleaning to prevent rust.

Always keep your pruning tools sharp to avoid tearing the bark of your tree or plant stalk.

It would help if you stored your pruning tools safely and away from moisture, and last but not least, only use your pruning tools for the function for which they were intended.

Tips for Pruning Plants

There is a reason why you should always use sharp pruning tools to prune your plant. Dulled pruning tools can lead to branch shredding, making the plants look bad and causing the shredded surface to be exposed to insects and diseases.

The purpose of pruning is to improve the quality of the roses, not to hurt the bush.

Florence Littauer

Make sure that the cuts you make are clean and precise to help your plants heal quickly.

During the pruning process, always remember to sterilize your tools to avoid spreading diseases from one plant to another. Also, be careful not to remove too much of your plant’s leaves or branches at once, as this might make it difficult for your plant to bear fruit or grow back.

Tips for Pruning trees

We have covered the pruning process for bigger plants. While they might be similar to pruning trees, the latter requires much-needed forethought, planning, and maybe even professional help to ensure that over-pruning will not happen.

Over punning trees is highly possible to do, especially when you are a beginner in this process.

You might be cutting away branches with the primary thought in mind to clear out tree parts while considering the tree’s ability to take such massive pruning activities, as pruning can introduce diseases and pests into the tree wounds just like in shrubs and smaller plants.

If you have unfortunately already come across and have over-pruned your trees, this recent article of mine on how to fix over-pruned trees may help. It covers extensively the topics on how to undo the over-pruning, tutorials on trimming your trees correctly, and techniques to prevent this from happening to other trees in your care.

Best time to do plant and tree prunings

Always pick the most favorable time for your plants before pruning them. Late bloomers most likely should be cut during early winter, while early bloomers should be cut late into winter.

Understanding the Fundamentals of Thinning when directed towards seedlings

Unlike pruning, thinning usually involves the complete removal of unwanted plants such as overgrown plants and most seedlings or trees that impede the growth of other plants.

Other forms of thinning, such as the one done in forestry, increase airflow and resource distribution to selected trees by cutting down other ones. Still, for this whole section, we shall be more focused on thinning and the process of doing that to seedlings.

Considerations with regards to thinning seedlings

Many farmers, gardeners, and horticulturists do not like the idea of thinning.

Thinning means killing off a portion of the plants they have grown, and in seedlings, it ensures that your plant does not have to compete with other seedlings.

However, it is actually better to thin your plants for so many reasons when they are still seedlings or just sprouting out. In an attempt to avoid thinning, some gardeners and farmers usually plant their seeds with the desired spacing instead of having to risk thinning them when they are more grown.

Benefits of Thinning Seedlings?

Thinning is essentially done to allow your plants to have plenty of room to grow. It enables your plant to receive enough of what is required for it to grow properly. Some of those requirements include moisture, nutrient, light, airflow, and even space.

Here are some of the benefits of thinning:

Benefits of thinning in seedlingsTheir effects on the plant
Adequate space for growthBy thinning your plants early when you notice that they are not adequately spaced, you provide those plants with more nutrients and space to grow. Root vegetables, for instance, will suffer greatly if they are not properly spaced.
Air circulationPest and diseases are known to propagate in areas with little to no airflow as these areas stay moist most of the time. To prevent the growth of some pests and diseases, thinning is the best answer.
It helps to ensure the growth of healthy plants.When looking out for plants to thin out, it is good to look out for plants that show signs of weakness or diseases. This way, you can be sure that the plants left after thinning will be the healthy bunch with a higher survival rate. However, if your plants are all healthy, you can still thin them out at random or wait a little bit longer and select the plants that are smaller or weaker.
Adequate NutrientsIt is easy to see that if a lot of your plants have to compete for resources during their period of growth, your harvest might be very sparse. Thinning is an excellent way to ensure that your plants don’t have to compete for nutrients while they grow. This is also true for ensuring that your plants get enough water.

Know that we know the why’s on doing thinnings to seedlings and the benefits they bring to plants when done correctly, we should, of course, cover just when it is best to do it.

When Should I Thin my Seedlings?

Thinning your seedlings at the right time is essential to the survival and viability of your plant. If you thin your plants too late, overdeveloped roots of the thinned-out plants may cause damage to the other plants.

When thinning, you want to ensure that your plants have enough space between them, say two fingers width.

If the type of plant you are growing would require that you pull it out entirely rather than just cutting the sprouting stem, then make sure the soil is damp. You can pour enough water into the area if it is too dry to help soften the soil.

This will ensure that the roots of the other plant incur less damage. This will also make it easier for you to pull out plants.

Only do thinning when the seedlings have reached a specific height and number of leaves

Before you go ahead with your thinning process, ensure that your seedlings have at least two pairs of true leaves and should be at least 3 to 4 inches tall.

It is a good idea to carry out the thinning of your seedlings in the evening hours. This is because dark and cool weather makes it easier for the remaining seedlings to recover from any damage sustained. You can also do this during cloudy weather.

How Should I Thin My Seedlings?

Thinning can be a straightforward but delicate process because you can do more damage than good when done wrongly. It is important to note that not all plants can be thinned the same way.

For instance, plants with fragile roots like beans, melons, cucumbers, and squash should be thinned as soon as possible.

It would help if you thinned out these types of plants before their roots begin to entangle each other. This would prevent the root disturbance of other plants.

Pull the parts that are unhealthy in a gentle manner when thinning

Make sure you gently pull out the diseased or unwanted seedlings while you leave the healthy ones intact. It is a good idea to thin out leafy vegetables and flowers this way.

For root crops, it is better to cut them at the soil line or pull them out very gently with extra care.

Tips to Follow While Thinning Your Plants

To avoid damaging the roots of your plants while you thin them, you should use scissors shears to cut your plants off as close to the ground as you can. This is preferred to pulling the plants out of the ground.

  • After thinning your plant, make sure that you water the remaining plants to help re-established any part of the bed that might have been disturbed.

Remember that while it may seem inhumane to do thinnings, it is better to kill some of your plants off now to give allow the others better chances to grow, especially at such a young age of seedlings.

Conclusion to pruning vs thinning

When in doubt, remember that Pruning is often done to train trees to grow in a specific way or help improve the growth of a tree or plant. On the other hand, Thinning is done to increase the fighting chance of plants and redirect nutrients and airflow into the healthier parts.

There are great variations of usage and benefits to both pruning and thinning of plants. Most people have them interchanged with each other, even the greatest gardening enthusiasts, so hopefully, this article cleared up that confusion.

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Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter, and professional gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 46. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process so you are more productive

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