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How I Fix Leggy Houseplants – Get Bushier Plants by Breaking This Pruning Rule

Two photos, leggy Tahitian Bridal Veil plant and same plant after it has been cut hard and grown back in.

It always starts the same way – we buy a small houseplant or start a cutting with plans of tending it into this massive, bushy plant. We picture a hanging plant so full that you can no longer see the pot because it’s buried in glorious, lush foliage spilling down the sides.

And the reality ends up being a leggy little thing with a couple of spindly vines flopping over the side of the pot.

Look, if you want big, bushy plants, you have to break the rules.  

Leggy hanging pothos
That’s…not quite what I had in mind.

You Have to Know the Rules to Break Them

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’m bad at following my own advice. Do I put plants in pots with no drainage hole? Yes. Yes, I do. Do I check my plants weekly to see which ones need to be watered? Um, no. I forget half the time. Do I sterilize my plant scissors every time I use them? Hey, how about this weather, huh?

But there is one rule that I break with religious frequency without regret.

The results are always the same – a larger, happier, bushier plant.

The 25% Rule

You’ve probably heard that when you prune a plant, you should never remove more than 25%. Well, I’m here to call bull feathers on that little piece of advice, especially where climbing, trailing, and vining houseplants are concerned.

I’m not entirely sure how this advice ended up in the lexicon of Houseplant Rules Thou Shalt Not Break, but it’s bunk. It’s absolutely true when you’re pruning trees or fruiting vegetable plants such as tomatoes. However, it doesn’t seem to apply to most houseplants.

You see, as long as you have a healthy plant with a well-developed root system, anything that’s made to spread and climb will bounce back, even if you cut it hard.

Especially if you cut it hard.

New Monstera leaf growing out of a cut
That one time I cut a monstera leaf off because it had a big brown spot on it, and my Monstera deliciosa was like, “Excuse me? I don’t think so,” and grew a new leaf to spite me.

So, if you’ve got a pothos, tradescantia, philodendron, monstera adansonii, or other vining houseplant that’s gotten quite leggy, it’s time to break the rules and break out the scissors.

The 75% Rule

When I’m trying to encourage a spindly houseplant to get bushy, I turn the 25% rule on its head. I cut 75% of the plant off. This does a couple of things. It sends a message to the plant to hurry up and grow – a lot. It also encourages further root development, which is key in sustaining a bushy plant above ground.

Sometimes, that’s all you need to do.

Give your leggy plant a severe do-over. Take my beautiful Tahitian Bridal Veil (Gibasis pellucida) for example. I received a cutting from my sweety’s mom a number of years ago. It started with a few stems. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get the silly thing to bush out. I would tuck pieces of it back into the dirt and fold the long vines back over, making contact with the soil.

Two photos of a leggy Tahitian Bridal Veil plant

It just kept growing longer and longer into this crazy, skinny green waterfall. I had to move it out of the way each time I vacuumed. It was long but looked ridiculous growing out of the pot.

Finally, I had enough and lopped the whole thing off. I left about 4” of the plant sticking up out of the pot. I wrapped up the several feet of cut trailers and pitched them in the trash. (Did I take a picture of it? Of course, I didn’t. It’s not like I write about this stuff for a living or anything.)

Then I waited to see what would happen.

My plant got the message and started putting out a ton of new growth this past summer. By fall, it was a bushy green mass covered in tiny white flowers. It looks fantastic since it’s grown back in.

A Caveat – You Have to Have Something There to Get Bushy

Base of pothos plant with four stems
Well, I think we found your problem, ma’am.

Pruning a plant hard will encourage new growth, yes, but if you want a full, bushy plant, it’s got to have the foundation for lots of foliage. The only way vining plants appear bushy is if they’re a little crowded in their pot.

If you want a full pothos hanging in your living room, and you’ve only got three or four main stems growing from the soil, that’s going to be a problem.

But it’s one we can solve together while we prune the plant back. Grab your scissors, and let’s get started. Yes, I wiped mine down with alcohol this time.

Leggy pothos and scissors
Okay, we’re going to trim all this back so there is about 5″ of stem on each vine and at least three leaves each.
You’ll notice the new leaf bud at that one node. We’re going to cut above that.
Now take those long vines you just removed and snip them into cuttings to propagate right in the soil.
You want one leaf at the top of the cutting and a leaf node with the leaf removed below it.
Pothos cuttings
I said I wanted a bushy pothos.
Since I’m not repotting, I’m going to use a fork and fluff up and top-dress the existing soil before I put my cuttings in.
Wet down your top-dressed and fluffed potting mix.
Carefully insert your cuttings so that the node where you removed the leaf is below the soil. This will ensure the cutting puts out roots at that node.
A chopstick comes in handy for making holes for the cuttings to go in.
Pothos cuttings
Much better!

Now that you’ve pruned your plant hard and propagated some of the cuttings, you’ll need to keep the soil moist while they root. Check your plant every couple of days to ensure the soil doesn’t dry out. After a few weeks, the cuttings will root in the soil and start growing again. Trimmed stems will also begin to put out new leaf nodes.

Hanging pothos
And now we wait.

It may take a month or so, and it will seem as though nothing is happening. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll notice a bunch of new growth on your plant.

Another Caveat – Timing is Key

To get the best results, prune back leggy houseplants when they’re in their growth cycle. If the plant is dormant, it’s resting and may not have the extra nutrients needed to put on a big growth spurt. Also, plants tend to go dormant when the days are shorter. They need plenty of light to grow back when you prune them, which is easier to do when plants are actively growing during longer days of the year.

If you do cut a plant back when it’s dormant, be prepared to give it a boost with grow lights and fertilizer. And be patient. Think of how grumpy you are when someone wakes you up while you’re sleeping. The best thing to do is to wait until the plant starts growing again before making the big cut.

Not Bushy Enough for You? Try This

Prune it again

After a month or so, if you notice your plant is filling in with new growth and you want it to be bushier still, go ahead and give it another prune. But this time, follow the 25% rule. Don’t prune so hard this time around. Make a few judicious cuts to areas where you can see the plant looks a little thin. This will encourage lateral growth in that area.

Each time you prune it, you’re telling the plant – bushier, not longer.

More light, please

Two pothos on a table
See that N’Joy pothos on the bottom?

If you’ve got a solid base for your plant and you’ve pruned it hard, and it’s still looking pretty spindly, then light is the issue. Vining plants tend to stretch their creepers toward the light when they don’t receive enough. On the flip side, when they receive plenty of bright, indirect sunlight, they grow fuller, slowing their creeping growth. It takes them longer to get to the point where they start spilling down the sides of the pot, but that’s because they aren’t stretching.

Hanging N'joy pothos
It needed more light.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Unfortunately, much like maintaining a favorite haircut, regular pruning is a part of keeping certain houseplants. Because they climb and vine and creep, eventually, these types of houseplants all end up needing serious pruning to help encourage them to grow in a pleasing shape.

Potted satin pothos
And that satin pothos next to it needed a little pruning this spring, too.

Whether it’s once a year or once every other year, to maintain a more rounded, full shape, climbing plants will need to be pruned hard. You may want to time this to coincide with repotting them, as it makes the job much easier to do when you don’t have to deal with six-foot-long runners.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,