Ho hum… pruning… just another boring maintenance topic, right up there with proper irrigation. I do, however, consider pruning quite therapeutic. There’s nothing better than throwing on a sweatshirt on a chilly day and getting a few plants ready for spring. Winter, when plants are dormant, is the best time to prune anything if we don’t care about spring bloom. Alas, it’s that time of the year again and a good time to share some tips.
We prune the bulk of our plants sometime between January and March when they’re asleep and there’s not much going on in the gardens. The spring calendar is too crazy for this time-consuming task. Summer is too hot and fall way too late. Minor corrective pruning can be done year-round, as needed.
In our gardens, we occasionally forgo spring bloom for one year because of the way we prune. If we are planning and planting the proper plant for the space we have, then a plant should only need corrective pruning to eliminate crisscrossing branches and open the middle for light. Unfortunately, plant growth isn’t an exact science. Where a plant is happy, it can exceed expectations. In the field, we are also dealing with client mistakes, i.e. that 6-foot Compacta Holly under a 4-foot high windowsill. As much as we love pruning, we despise pruning the same shrubs year in and year out. Instead, once every few years, we hack them back hard and let them grow up over a period of several years. Thus, staggering the job, pruning different shrubs in different years, and always hard-pruning.
Hand pruning is a-must for healthy plants and a natural look. Proper pruning allows filtered light into the shrub, promoting growth from the bottom up and the inside out, the way a plant should grow. To shorten a branch or stem, make pruning cuts ¼-inch above a side or lateral branch. To remove a branch, cut it all the way back to a main stem or trunk. Never make cuts between branches or buds leaving ugly stubs. We’ve included pruning illustrations from Lee Reich’s book, The Pruning Book. Generally speaking, all plants are pruned this way. Ratchet pruners are always easier on the hands and wrists.
Sell those electric sheers and hide those scissor sheers, using them only for ornamental grasses. These pruning devices indiscriminately cut stems leaving stubs throughout. The plant reacts by producing copious amounts of growth at the stub, which shades the interior of the shrub. Ever parted a sheered shrub and looked inside? The branches are dead. No light, no growth, green meatball.
- If we care about bloom and can fit the time into our busy growing season, we hard prune after the plant finishes flowering. This a rule of thumb for most plants… prune after bloom.
- Thicken a shrub by making a few pruning cuts here and there, winter, spring and summer. Because the plant is compromised and out of balance with its root system, it will produce additional foliage and eventually a thicker shrub.
- When deadheading perennials, we make pruning cuts so that the stems are well hidden by the foliage. This may mean the flower stems are cut to the ground.
- Avoid pruning trees and shrubs during the fall months. New tender growth generated as a result of the pruning will not have time to harden off before freezing temps arrive.
Enjoy hand pruning once more by scheduling it during a quiet time in the landscape and removing several years of growth. Do not hesitate when pruning mature healthy plants. They are extremely resilient. Go for it.
Happy New Year! Plant More Natives.
Welcome to my journal. For over 20 years I've created original landscape plans to help homeowners increase property value and really enjoy their yards. I approach every project as an unique opportunity to develop a work of living art, one that will require minimal care and age beautifully with time. In this journal, I will share some of my field experiences and tricks of the trade with you. Feel free to email questions. Thanks for visiting.