Before you grab those Christmas Felcos, double-check the pruning calendar for your area. As much as some of us (myself) love to prune, slow down before you make that first cut because not all plants get pruned in winter, though winter is a good time to prune. Some plants bloom on old wood (hydrangeas, lilacs, forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons), and some bloom on new wood (hydrangea paniculatas, butterfly bushes, spirea, abelia). The first rule of pruning? Know your plant and how it will respond to pruning.
Late winter and early spring are the best times to prune most trees and shrubs. The terms “late winter” and “early spring” can be confusing. When is that exactly? It is when the seasons meet– when winter is exiting, and spring is arriving. This time frame is defined as dormant pruning.
Dormant pruning just before growth begins leaves a wound exposed for the minimum amount of time before healing begins. (Lee Reich, The Pruning Book).
Prune before the buds start swelling, but not so early in winter that the plant could suffer winter injury. Winter injury is a term that defines several types of plant damage caused by environmental conditions, frost injury being one of them.
And, if you missed the monthly garden chore calendar, here’s January’s. Look for the garden chore calendars on the first weekend of each month.
Never Prune Without a Reason
Pruning is a regular garden chore, but not all shrubs need it regularly. The first question to ask yourself is, why am I pruning? That answer will determine how you prune. Most of us prune without understanding why we’re pruning. We just think we’re “supposed,” too. It is essential to know why you are pruning and, even more importantly, to understand the plant’s response. Here are some common reasons for pruning:
- Plants eat each other, your house, the walkways, and the driveway. Life can be too busy for pruning overly ambitious plants, so they take over the landscape. As a garden coach and landscape consultant, I can attest that this reason ranks top of the list.
- Old plants that need rejuvenation pruning. This is helpful for rhododendrons, azaleas, oak leaf hydrangeas, spirea, lilacs, butterfly bushes–and more. This is a drastic prune; you must be ready because the entire plant will be cut back to 6″.
- Tidy up the plants with suckers, wild shoots, and old wood to make them more attractive.
- Improve flowering or fruiting.
- Encourage better blooms.
To summarize, we prune for health, size, beauty, and bounty. Most homeowners detest the “meatball” look but fear letting plants be their natural shape and size. Try relaxing a little and allowing plants a more natural look.
Every plant has different pruning needs, and a good reference book is helpful when determining how and when to prune. But no gardener should ever wait to prune out dead, diseased, and damaged wood. That’s one chore you can do in any season. It helps prevent disease and pests, as open wounds are the perfect portal for both. You don’t need a pruning calendar for that.
How to Prune
- Cut out all diseased, damaged, and dead wood.
- Thin out crowded and dense limbs.
- Remove watersprouts from limbs on trees.
- Remove all crossing or rubbing branches.
- Remove weak wood.
- Remove pencil-thin growth.
- Cut back at least 6″ to healthy wood on any dead wood.
- Remove suckers.
Types of Pruning
Rejuvenation pruning is often done on old shrubs and deciduous shrubs that look best with the current year’s growth (red twig dogwood).
Shearing hedges so that all parts of the plant receive light creates healthier hedges.
Heading back shrubs promotes branching and increases flower/fruit production.
Thinning shrubs allow light and air to penetrate the shrub better. Removing old wood helps keep a shrub young and vibrant.
The plant and its needs will determine the pruning to be done. Most deciduous shrubs will benefit from thinning, heading, or both. Removing old growth at the base of the shrub, and new pencil-thin stems (thinning), will give room for air circulation and light. Heading back branches forces energy reserves into shoot and bud formation. The general rule is never to remove more than 1/3 of the plant at once. Most homeowners are too nervous about cutting and, therefore, don’t cut enough, especially with fruit trees and berry bushes, where cuts result in a bountiful harvest by redirecting energy into greater fruit production and less plant growth.
Pruning can improve the health, vigor, and lifespan of your plants. Your local extension service is an excellent place to start if you have questions regarding specific trees or shrubs or need a pruning calendar. The store also has resources and staff that can answer your questions. And our landscape division can do the pruning for you. Call them at 828-684-9190 if you need some extra help.
Written by Cinthia Milner, Landscape Consultant and blog writer.
B.B. Barns serves Asheville, Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.