Late Winter Pruning

If you are itching to get into the garden on the moderate winter’s day, you might want to grab a good pair of hand pruners plus some razor-sharp loppers and go in search of a shrub to prune. This is an advertisement­ven­ture fraught with peril for the shrubs, but if you have a reasonable sense of how to proceed, you can enhance the look, vigor and health of these garden stalwarts while getting them in order. How so when to prune a shrub depends on what it is.

The golden rule: Easier to do no pruning than to butcher the wrong shrub. You may say, well I’ll just get the landscapers to completely clean in the bushes when they lay down the mulch in March. This assumes that they know very well what they’re doing, which isn’t always the case even if they plead competence.

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A indication of trouble: arbitrary snipping without respect to branch framework or buds. Another red flag: a “landscaper” giving a shrub a staff cut. Shrubs that bloom in the spring – azaleas, pieris, viburnums, for example – set their flower buds late last summer, so hacking them back again now can cost you blooms.

Summer and fall bloomers such as crape myrtles, butterfly bushes and rose of Sharon flower off completely new growth, to allow them to be pruned in winter dormancy without reduction. I lump small deciduous trees in with shrubs for winter pruning – they take advantage of the removal of rubbing, deceased or growing branches as well as old improperly pruned stubs inward. This remedial and inherently conservative pruning also applies to spring bloomers such as cherry trees, dogwoods, apples and redbuds.

Whatever flowering real wood you might remove is worth it for the wonder and health of the tree, and winter is the time to see the structure. Weeping Japanese maples need a deft and artistic touch particularly. In addition they bleed – perhaps that’s one specimen to leave alone. Generally, though, anytime you can bring air and light into the heart of a small tree or shrub, the better. It improves flower production and reduces the opportunity of fungal disease. Florally, forsythia is a display in the skillet. The root base of an old, tatty hedge are impossible to grub out once set up, but forsythia will benefit every few years from a hard cutback.

Wait until mid-April, after blooming. The same concepts apply to its mounded doppelganger, the wintertime jasmine. I cut mine back again hard every 3 years, in April also. The flower display might be diminished the first winter after that, however, not by much. EASILY had a string saw, I’d take that to the thicket of jasmine and leave stubs only 12 inches high.

You can do the same now to beautyberry, which can get extraordinarily big if still left unpruned over many years, just as much as eight to 10 ft. When I had beautyberries, I would take the loppers to them in past due winter and they would look stubby and mutilated while i had completed.

But within a few weeks of spring development, they would form well-behaved mounds, three foot by three feet, and end the growing season covered in their ornamental fruit. Rather than chop back that other amiable, late-season weed, the rose of Sharon, take away the older (fuller, darker) stems at their foundation, and lighten the remaining branch framework through artful deletion. Again, focus on the removal of growing and massaging branches. I don’t know that I’d have a huge old lilac in a Washington garden; it is simply not ornamental enough outside its fortnight of bloom.

But the standard pruning routine is to eliminate about a quarter of its oldest branches and suckers every year, but do this in early May, when it’s also advisable to take off the faded flowers before they form seed. This is the time to attack the roses. The high-performing landscape roses don’t need the delicate pruning that attends hybrid teas and grandifloras – they can be chopped back with hedge shears and will shoot back and bloom. However in our subtropical climate, it just seems to spend the same care to pruning a workhorse like Knock Out as you might something more sensitive and susceptible to the dreaded blackspot. You’ll want thick, thornproof gloves because of this working job.

My initial prune has been the loppers, reducing the bush back and eliminating sick and tired and old canes entirely. Ideally, you want half a dozen roughly healthy canes forming a bowl around the crown. Utilize the tactile hand pruners to cut them down to about 20 inches or so, cutting them half an inch above an outward facing bud.