How to Help a Plant Grow More Branches A Step-by-Step Guide


Picture of an indoor cactus with yellow background in a small terracotta pot with sand & rocks that has thorns, green tear shaped leaves and is flowering but currently has no branches anywhere on it.

You want your houseplant to grow more branches, so you care for it well. However, time doesn’t deliver the branches you had been hoping for, leaving you quite disappointed. Did you do something wrong? What triggers branch growth in houseplants? We did lots of digging to bring you the answer.

How to help a plant grow more branches? To trigger branch growth in your houseplant, you want to trim or prune the plant, following these steps:

  • Choose the right tool for the job (such as garden scissors or pruning shears)
  • Start with the dead parts, removing these
  • Trim longer branches first
  • Then cut down any very long stems
  • Alternately, pinch stems (only for some houseplant species)
  • Fertilize afterwards

In this comprehensive guide, we will walk you through the above steps in much more detail. We’ll also explain why pinching stems works in some houseplants and which cutting tools are best for your indoor plant. Keep reading!

Why Pruning Works for Plant Growth

If you’re trying to grow more branches, then getting rid of what you have might seem counterintuitive, right? How do you grow more branches by removing branches?

Well, it’s because you’re not cutting the branches all willy-nilly. Instead, you’re beginning with the main shoot. This is the part of your houseplant that has enjoyed the most growth, almost to the detriment of the other branches.

As you may remember from another recent blog post of ours, houseplants produce a hormone called auxin. This starts from the tip of the plant, where auxin is most plentiful, and travels down. The quantities of auxin become less as it gets lower. This is deliberate. The purpose of auxin is to trigger growth, but with the smaller buds getting less of it, they don’t grow as much. This keeps the main stem, well, the main stem.

This 2009 report from Science Daily noted how if the main stem has enough auxin, it won’t send it to the shoot tip. This means every shoot tip now has the same chance of growing big and strong. None of the branches outshine the main tip, but more branches do grow.

Pruning for More Branches: Follow These Steps!

Okay, now that you know a bit more about why it makes sense to prune your houseplant branches, how exactly do you go about doing that? It’s time to revisit the steps we listed in the intro and go through these much more thoroughly.

Step 1: Use the Right Cutting Tool

First thing’s first, you must choose your cutting tool(s) carefully. While some indoor gardeners may get away with pruning their plants using kitchen scissors, we don’t really advise you to do the same. There’s no need to when there are so many great plant pruning tools out there.

You can ignore most of the heavy-duty ones like tree pruners or loppers unless your houseplant has gotten rich, full, and thick. Instead, you’ll want to use one of the following.

Garden Scissors

Let’s start with the least complicated of pruning tools, gardening scissors. These do resemble kitchen scissors in a lot of ways, as they function much like any other pair of scissors you’ve used. They have oversized handles that are often made of colorful plastic, making garden scissors easy to grip and hold onto as you cut. The blade is small but sharp.

It’s recommended you reach for your gardening scissors if you’re removing thin stems and flowers, but that’s about it. They’re not ideal for anything but simple, lightweight jobs. There do exist longer versions of garden scissors if you need to reach deeper into your plant without disturbing other flowers or branches, but these are still meant for your basic cutting jobs.

Long-Reach Pruners

Speaking of having that longer reach, that’s the exact purpose of this next tool. Appropriately named long-reach pruners, these cutting tools often have handles that can telescope so you can get precisely the right angle and cut.

Not only will you avoid getting too deep into your plant with long-reach pruners, but you won’t get scratched, either. There are some pruners with short handles that can be operated with a single hand while the ones with longer handles need two-handed use.

Secateurs

Secateurs are just a fancy way of referring to your average pair of pruning shears. The blades aren’t the same from one pair of secateurs to another. You can buy either anvil or bypass blades.

With an anvil shear, both the top and bottom blades are flat on one side. This prevents stem sticking, making these secateurs a great pick if you’re cutting woody stems, which are often quite tough.

The bypass blade is more scissor-like with no flat edges. The blades don’t close on top of each other, but rather, overlap one another. If you have to trim a fragile stem, these are the secateurs you’d pick.

You can shop for right-handed and left-handed secateurs so you can always cut with your dominant hand. Secateurs also come in multiple sizes for making all sorts of cuts.

Whether you use garden scissors, long-reach pruners, secateurs, or a mix of all three, you must make sure they’re sterilized. You can dunk them in a bath of ethanol or isopropyl alcohol (between 70 and 100 percent) or dip a wipe in one of those solutions to clean the shears. If you’re going that route, take the time to clean the inside of the blades as well as the outside.

Step 2: Remove Dead Parts

Okay, so you’ve got your pruning shears and you’re ready to begin. The question becomes where do you cut on your houseplant?

Before you make a single snip, you want to take a step back and give your indoor plant a thorough once-over. You’re inspecting the health of each branch, stem, flower, and growth, looking for what’s dead or dying. Dead tips and branches won’t really help your houseplant grow. If anything, they prohibit growth, so you can start by getting rid of them first.

As you approach these dead parts, angle your cutting shears to 45 degrees. You can use standard secateurs or even gardening scissors for this job depending on the thickness of the dead growth.

Do not cut the entire branch or shoot off, just the dead ends. Look for areas that feel dry, sag and look limp, or have turned brown and even black. Those you don’t want, but you should keep the green, healthy areas. The only time you’d remove an entire branch is if the whole thing died. Even then, you should leave the main stem where it is, as it could grow more branches.

Don’t forget about your flowers, as these too can also die. It’s a lot easier to tell if your flowers are in poor condition than your branches, since they’ll lose their color and vibrancy. They’ll also become limp and browned.

Use your garden scissors to remove any dead flowers, starting at the head of the flower and making a firm, decisive cut to the base. Like with dead branches, dead flowers are inhibiting the growth of healthy, new flowers. By removing the dead parts, your houseplant should begin flowering again soon.

Step 3: Start with Your Longer Branches and Then Go Shorter

Okay, so you’ve pruned the dead parts. So far, so good. Next, you want to take another step back and look at the overall shape of your houseplant. This isn’t like pruning trees, where you have to concern yourself with martini shapes and the like. Instead, you want to identify which branches have grown a little too long, as you’re going to trim them back down to size.

You’ll need your secateurs or your long-reach pruners for this part of the job; leave your garden scissors behind for now. Your goal is to cut the branches back until they’re about a third shorter than they were.

Again, this is not something you want to rush. Don’t just measure out where you should cut your branch and make that whole trim in one fell swoop. Instead, take it bit by bit, cutting repeatedly until you get to the correct length. All along, make sure you’re sticking to an angle of 45 degrees with your cuts.

You want to keep your eyes open for nodules as you go along. These developing buds may not look like much to the unacquainted indoor gardener, but they’re incredibly important. They’re buds that will open or bloom with time, but they’re not quite ready yet. Do your best to avoid disturbing them as you prune. Also, remember to sterilize your pruning shears from one step to another.

Step 4: Now, Move on to Long Stems

Okay, so all the long branches on your houseplant have been trimmed back. The plant looks pretty good at this point and you’re quite proud of it. Don’t rest on your laurels yet, as you still have more work to do. Next, you want to get rid of any stems that may be ruining the appealing silhouette of your indoor plant.

With the longer branches removed, finding these lengthy stems should be quite easy. Now, keep in mind that all longer stems don’t necessarily stand straight out. After all, they’re not branches, only stems. The stems can dangle or droop, so make sure you check the bottom of your houseplant for any stragglers.

Once you’re sure you’ve found all the stems, you can use either your secateurs or garden scissors to rid your houseplant of the longer ones. Like with everything else, you want to use that 45-degree angle as you make your trim. You’re also aiming to remove roughly a third of the stem length.

Step 5: Pinch Stems

By the time you’re done with the above four steps, your houseplant should look better and neater than ever. You’re also freeing up more branches to get bigger because they have less excess growth and no dead parts. It’s now your job to keep up with your houseplant care so the branches can sprout up and keep growing.

This next step for pinching stems is something you can do for certain indoor plant species. These include the English ivy, heartleaf philodendrons, and coleus. These are all houseplants we’ve discussed on this blog before, so go back and refresh your memory if you’re growing any of these great plants.

Sure, you can prune these three houseplants the traditional way that we’ve discussed throughout this article. You also have another, better option, and that’s pinching the stems. The reason this works so well is because the stems of these indoor plants are softer than many other houseplant species.

Like pruning promotes growth, so too does pinching the stems. In fact, you may be able to double the amount of stems the houseplant has through pinching. If any stems are missing because they’ve died, pinching the area can also cause a stem to regrow in that spot where the old one was.

You want to pinch carefully, using the tips of your fingers. Some indoor gardeners rely on their fingernails, but you certainly want to watch out if that’s the method you choose. Remember, these houseplants have soft stems. If you press too much with your nails, you could accidentally slice the stem right off.

Besides using your fingers, you could also try pruning shears for pinching. You’d have to be quite masterful with your shears to avoid cutting the stems off when you only want to pinch them.

With your fingers or the shears, reach for the stem just over the leaf node. As you recall from earlier in this guide, the node of your houseplant is where future growth will occur. By tampering with this too much, you might prevent this growth. Never touch the node then, only the stem.

Go through each stem of your indoor plant that needs to grow and pinch it. When you’re done, keep tending to your plant, and soon you should see new branches!

Step 6: Fertilize When You’re Finished

Getting back to pruning the traditional way, let’s say you just wrapped up with the job. What should you do for your houseplant now? You want to fertilize it right away, ideally the same day. An all-purpose, soluble fertilizer is the best pick unless you have a houseplant that requires a different kind of fertilizer. In that case, defer to that.

I often include the far away lands a particular plant is native to so you’ll have a rough idea of the conditions the plant would ideally thrive in.

Interesting Fact

How Often Should You Prune Houseplants?

Now that you’ve actually done it, pruning your houseplant wasn’t so bad. You know the time will come for you to do it again, but how long should you wait?

It depends on what kind of pruning you’re doing. If you want to just trim off a few overgrown branches or stems, then you can do that anytime, any season. If you need to do more heavy-duty pruning, many indoor gardeners recommend planning your pruning for when your houseplant’s growing season begins. For many indoor plants, this is spring or summer.

Some plants don’t mind wintertime pruning, especially those that never flower. If your houseplant does grow any sort of flowers and these have yet to bloom, then hold off on grabbing the shears. Once the pretty flowers open up, that’s your cue to prune as needed.

How Much Cutting Should You Do on Average?

Like with many things with your houseplant, it’s possible to over-prune it. Anytime you prune, whether you’re doing light trimming or more work than that, you want to cut no more than 20 percent of the plant’s foliage. You might even want to limit your pruning to only 10 percent.

This might not sound like a lot, but less is definitely more in the case of your houseplant. Should you find you did under-prune, you can wait a couple of weeks and then come back to your plant and prune it again.

A houseplant that’s overly pruned may have lost its nodes, so any future growth is going to take quite a while to manifest. Now you’re stuck with a mostly naked-looking plant for the next weeks, maybe even months.

Tips for Pruning Your Houseplants

Always Cut off Less Than You Need

If you’ve ever cut your own hair before, pruning your houseplants is sort of in the same vein. Like you can’t add hair if you cut too much off, that’s also true of a plant. That’s why it’s smartest to make very small snips. You could always keep trimming if necessary, but major cuts can take away too much. Once you lop off an entire branch, there’s no putting it back.

Remember, You Can Always Propagate Healthy Branches

Listen, it’s natural to be afraid of overdoing it the first few times you prune your houseplant. It’s actually good to have a little bit of that fear, as you’ll probably be more overcautious rather than just go scissors happy.

That doesn’t mean mistakes won’t happen. If you accidentally trim a whole healthy branch off when you didn’t mean to, this isn’t necessarily the end of the world. You can always use the branch, stem, or other part plant to propagate new growth.

Follow Those 45-Degree Angle Cuts

Throughout this whole guide, we’ve told you to make cuts at an angle of 45 degrees. This isn’t some arbitrary number. There’s actually a very good reason for cutting into your plant at this angle.

A 45-degree cut is like a diagonal. There’s a longer end of the stem or branch and now a shorter end as well. You get more surface area compared to making a cut that’s straight. Even more important is that this angle allows the houseplant to take in more water. Yes, it’s still very necessary that your pruned plant gets water, otherwise it’ll begin dying.

Keep Those Pruning Shears Clean

This is another point we kept touching on during this guide: to sterilize your pruning shears. Plant diseases can spread from one part of the houseplant to another if you use the same dirty shears across the entire plant. Also, by sterilizing, you ensure the shears are free of dirt or sap so they won’t get stuck when you’re trying to make a crucial cut.

It’s not enough to rinse your shears with water alone, as water won’t rid the shears of the bacteria that may have latched on and can then spread diseases to your healthy houseplants.

Related Questions

What are some other products that sterilize gardening shears?

While we said before that isopropyl alcohol or ethanol work for sterilizing your gardening shears and trimmers, you can use other products as well. Here’s an overview.

  • Pine oil: If you combine water (three parts) with pine oil (one part) and then dunk your garden shears in the mix, they’ll be clean-ish. We say clean-ish because fewer pathogens are removed from a pine oil soak compared to using other disinfecting products. You might only want to try pine oil if you did very light pruning. For best results, let your tools sit in the pine oil bath for 30 minutes.
  • Listerine, Pine Sol, or Lysol: From pine oil to Pine Sol, your favorite household cleaning products can come in handy for sterilization. With Listerine or Pine Sol, you’d fill a container with the stuff and then plunk your gardening tools in. If you’re using Lysol to disinfect, spray the gardening shears thoroughly. Do keep in mind that some ingredients of these household cleaners can corrode your tools.
  • Bleach: As one of the toughest liquids around, bleach can clean just about anything. You want to dilute the bleach heavily, mixing in water (nine parts) with your bleach (one part). Give the gardening shears 30 minutes in the bleach, but try to only soak the blades if possible. Other parts of the tools can get ruined in a bleach bath. When they’re done, let your gardening shears line-dry outside. The fumes of the bleach can be very damaging, so please never breathe them in directly.

What happens if you don’t prune your plants?

We talked before about the dangers of pruning your houseplant too much. You could even have the opposite problem, in which you don’t prune your indoor plants or maybe you’ve never pruned a plant.

In such a case, what will happen to your houseplant? Well, you’ll have all those dead growths for one, which can prevent the plant branches or stems from growing bigger and healthier. If any diseased parts exist on your houseplant, these can spread, possibly killing the entire plant over time.

Twigs and stems can get too long, choking off blooms and other growth. Since your plant will get so thick and full, all parts might not receive equal quantities of light. Thus, your houseplant could begin wilting.

Even if that doesn’t happen, it can end up growing to become big, bushy, and unkempt. If you’re growing your plant in a small home, an apartment, or an office, it can eventually take up a lot of unnecessary room and generally just not look as nice as it could if you were pruning it from time to time.

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the natural look of an indoor plant, but for the sake of the health of your plant, give pruning a try. I always feel like my plants look and respond in a way that makes them appear healthier after I’ve pruned them for the season.

Fred Zimmer

I'm a lover of plants, animals, photography, & people, not necessarily in that order. Currently, I'm focused on photographing indoor plants & chachkies. I write & rewrite articles about creating an environment where indoor plants can thrive. I'm good at listening to music but bad at shopping to muzak.

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