What is tea pruning and skiffing?

Pruning is the process by which the planter selectively removes parts of a plant like the branches, roots or buds. Thus,  Tea pruning is a horticultural practice which the planters widely use to keep the plants in ideal shape.

Benefits of pruning:
  • When the planter performs pruning, the tea plants receive a  fresh lease of life. Pruning facilitates the removal of diseased or damaged, unproductive, unwanted or dead tissues from the plant body and thus helps the plants to maintain and improve health.
  • A properly pruned plant is capable of preventing insects and decay organisms from entering.
  • Pruning  helps the plant to shape it up itself by controlling or directing its growth.
  • Adequate pruning eliminates cramped and crossing branches, which in turn prevents plant damage.
  • By performing pruning operation at regular intervals, the planter ensures that the tea leaves get enough sunlight and air.
  • Tea pruning not only increases the overall yield but also improves the quality of the crop.
  • Last but not the least, pruning enables the planter to prepare nursery specimens for transplantation.

tea pruning and skiffing of a tea plantI. Objectives of pruning:

In tea plantation, if you prune young plants, then

  • the plants will produce a low spreading frame for quick ground coverage,
  • it will facilitate mechanical and manual harvesting,
  • the tea plants develop a sturdy framework that can sustain proper vegetative growth in the future years, and
  • you will be able to harvest maximum crop even in the early years.

An experienced planter prunes mature bushes at intervals to renovate the branch system. This also keeps the bush in the vegetative phase. Pruning is a necessary operation as it helps the plants to channel maximum energy to the process of production of leaf. You can see the leaves drop off from old branch sets in plants and you know that they are no more productive. But pruning stimulates the production of new sets of fast growing branches which in turn helps to yield a good harvest.

Now we can say tea pruning controls growth in one hand and stimulates new growth on the other hand.

II. Time of Pruning:

The planter decides the time of pruning after taking several factors such as climate, soil and also, topographic conditions into consideration. However most of the time you will see, an experienced tea planter performs the pruning or skiffing operation only during a specific time of the year – when the plant is dormant. During this period, the plant growth rate is at its lowest and thus, carbohydrate reserves are at the highest. From the perspective of the planter, this is the best time for pruning. Still, the planter fixes the exact time for pruning only after giving due consideration to a number of factors. This includes the locality, climate, crop and quality requirements, seasonal crop distribution, susceptibility to pest and disease etc.

Generally tea planters from North East India consider December-January as the ideal period for pruning tea bushes. During this period you will find optimum level of starch reserve in tea roots.  Though the root starch content is found to be maximum in February, still pruning is not advisable during this month. Remember, pruning done in February invariably results in less early season crop. That is why, most of the planters in Assam prefer to prune or skiff tea plants during December-January period.

III. Tea Pruning Cycles:

Tea experts have found that if the planter performs pruning in longer cycles along with the process of skiff and/or unprune, then in most of the times, the productivity rises. For proper execution of the process, the experts devised a method where repeat pruning on annual basis is substituted by longer pruning cycles. Here, a prune is followed by lighter forms of cut or unprune until the bushes are pruned again. However, the duration of pruning should be such that the branches will remain uniformly thick leading to a maximum number of pruning sticks on the frame.

IV. Tea Skiffing:

You may term the lighter forms of cuts, which the planter gives to the tea plants in between two consecutive prune years, as skiffing. Introduction of skiffing has eliminated the necessity of light pruning every year. The bushes may be deep skiffed (DS), medium skiffed (MS), light skiffed (LS) or just leveled by giving a level of skiff (LoS). While you leave the plant and do nothing, then you can call it unpruned (UP). The description of the skiffing operation is given below:

Deep Skiff:

While done after a light prune, this is a cut which the planter gives to the plant at a position which is midway between the pruning and tipping levels. For instance, if you take a plant which has tipped at 20 cm, then you will have to deep skiff it at 10 cm above the previous pruning level. Deep skiffing after one or more years of unprune or level skiffs is a cut midway between the pruning level and the height of the table at the end of the season. This height comes at 12.5-15 cm (maximum) from the last LP mark.

Medium Skiff:

When done after a light prune, tea tipped at 20 cm and if deep skiffed, tea tipped at 10 cm. Then the plant will be cut at a height of 15 cm from the pruning mark or 5 cm below the last tipping level. However, when medium skiffing is done after one or more years of unprune, light skiffed or level skiffed years, this skiff is given just below the “Crow’s feet’ formed by the last year’s plucking.

V. Choice of Pruning Cycle:

If we execute a pruning cycle of fixed duration of say 3 or 4 year for all tea sections, then in all possibility it may fail to produce desired result for crop optimisation after 2/3 repetitions. Different studies have vindicated this point. The reasons could be the age of the bush, age of wood, vigor, bush frame and hygiene. However, in case of youngish mature tea after final frame forming prune and in old tea after bush frame rectification, a 3 year cycle of LP-DS-UP or LP-UP-UP is more ideal than any other cycle.

Studies have indicated that 3 year pruning cycle helped sustaining the productivity better than 4 year cycle in the plains of N.E. India. However if the planter wants both productivity and quality, then LP-DS-UP could be the best bet compared to any other cycles in general.  Depending on vigour and age of bush, 4 year cycles could sustain for 1-2 repeats, while 3 year cycles could sustain up to three repeats. Few examples of pruning cycles:

A. 3 year cycles

  1. LP-UP-UP- Crop oriented
  2. LP-DS-UP- Quality oriented
  3. LP-DS-MS- Quality oriented

B. 4 year cycles:

  1. LP-UP-DS-UP
  2. LP-UP-MS-UP 


VI. Size of knife:

You can use a 15 (Fifteen) cm blade knife for light pruning of youngish tea. For cleaning operation, however, we may better use a smaller knife say of 7.5-10 cm size. Remember, never use a knife with weight less than 450 g for light pruning as lighter knives can cause wood splitting.

Article contributed by Dr. Atul Chandra Sarma