Do you Prune Shrubs in Fall?

It's that time of year when the pruners return to the garden. I'm talking actual people. Gardeners fall into two groups: Those who PRUNE and those who prune. Those who PRUNE are eyeing the garden now with pruners in hand looking for their first victim. Pretty much any plant is fair game. While I identify with the those who PRUNE, let's put the pruners down for a minute and determine what is fair game and what isn't. In other words, do we prune our shrubs in fall?

It's fine to lightly shape this Steed's holly, removing stems that are too long or narrow to withstand winter winds and snow, but heavy pruning should be done in February/March. 

Pruning Guidelines

  • Prune flowering shrubs right after blooming.
  • Prune non-blooming shrubs in late winter/early spring. 
  • Do not shear or heavily prune shrubs after July 31st.
  • Prune deciduous trees and fruit trees in late winter/early spring.
  • Prune conifers in late winter/early spring. 
  • Rejuvenation prune in late winter/early spring immediately after flowering. See list below for plants that respond well that type of pruning.

You get the idea. Don't  prune. But, of course, there are a few exceptions. 

Exceptions:

  • Remove dead or diseased wood anytime.
  • Light shaping in fall for shrubs that have uneven growth is okay. Remove stems growing out of the shrub by cutting close to the parent branch, not by shearing. Shearing promotes new growth which is unwanted this late in the season, since it can cause winter damage. 
  • Cutting boxwoods or evergreens for Christmas decorations is okay but cut as described above, don't shear.  Cut close to the parent branch deep inside the shrub to avoid promoting new growth and to hide cuts. 
 This holly shrub was cut back hard to allow for rejuvenation in very early spring of this year.Typically, when doing rejuvenation pruning, you cut back to 6"-12" so this one could have been cut back further. The following picture shows the results.

This holly shrub was cut back hard to allow for rejuvenation in very early spring of this year.Typically, when doing rejuvenation pruning, you cut back to 6"-12" so this one could have been cut back further. The following picture shows the results.

 By late August, the holly is 18" tall and growing. This type of pruning reinvigorates shrubs that are old, overgrown or sheared so many times the interior of the shrub is primarily dead twigs. It is a cost effective way to clean up the landscape. Not all shrubs respond to this kind of drastic pruning.

By late August, the holly is 18" tall and growing. This type of pruning reinvigorates shrubs that are old, overgrown or sheared so many times the interior of the shrub is primarily dead twigs. It is a cost effective way to clean up the landscape. Not all shrubs respond to this kind of drastic pruning.

Plants that respond well to rejuvenation pruning:

  • Abelias
  • Azaleas
  • Cherry laurels
  • Deutzia
  • Forsythia
  • Holly shrubs
  • Honeysuckle
  • Lilac
  • Potentilla
  • Red twig or yellow twig dogwood (The newer stems are more colorful than the older stems, cut back hard every 2-3 years for winter color.)
  • Rhododendrons
  • Weigela

So, if you are a PRUNER, the bad news is you gotta wait for early spring. The good news is in about two weeks, most of your perennials will need cutting back. Go for it, then.

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach, and blog writer.

B.B.Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Tennessee.