“I’ve met many gardeners who don’t feel completely comfortable about pruning and never take off quite enough wood, because they are nervous about hurting the plant … they fear that each cut may be painful … and that the whole idea is a bit sinful.”
— Lewis Hill, “Pruning Made Easy,” 1997
Thirty years ago, a poetry teacher I had in college said one of the biggest challenges for writers is trying to say too much. Each line must be trimmed, cut, even hacked off until only the essential words remain. Great wordsmiths, the teacher said, must be willing to “murder their little darlings.”
I’ve often thought of the teacher’s advice when writing my gardening columns and grading my students’ college essays. I’ve also kept it in mind as a gardener when I hesitate to cut back, pinch, deadhead or disbud parts of a plant that really need to go.
Rather than murdering our little green darlings, pruning plants actually makes them healthier and stronger. The trick is to prune purposefully, correctly and at the right time.
For instance, after the first frost is a good time to remove garden annuals and cut back herbaceous perennial flowers and herbs so they enjoy a dormant period during winter. (Of course, this doesn’t include winter-blooming perennials, such as hellebore.)
Put overwintering perennials to bed by using clean, sharp clippers to cut them back a few inches above ground level. If you are removing diseased plant limbs, dip the clippers into a weak bleach solution in between cuttings. Make clean, slanted cuts to prevent moisture from collecting on cut limbs, which can encourage disease.
Some gardeners recommend applying a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorous fertilizer at this time to support the roots. Also, be sure to mulch overwintering plants with leaves or straw for protection.
Now is also a good time to lightly prune trees and shrubs to help them maintain good health. Use clean, sharp shears or loppers and make slanted cuts about ¼ inch above a node to remove diseased growth, dead branches and stems, crossing branches and suckers. Wait until spring or summer to remove large limbs and for heavier pruning.
Some deciduous flowering shrubs should be lightly pruned during their dormant period. These include shrubs that form flowers on wood that grew this season. Because the stems are still young and soft, they can be easily damaged during the winter by wind, heavy rain and snow. Prune these shrubs before the buds show green in late fall or late winter, rather than when they are actively growing.
Shrubs commonly grown in our area that should be pruned when dormant include abelia (Abelia x grandiflora), beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica), bluebeard (Caryopteris), butterfly bush (Buddleia), cinquefoil (Potentilla), crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), heather (Calluna vulgaris), Japanese fatsia (Fatsia japonica), oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Peegee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), Saint John’s wort (Hypericum), summer-blooming spirea (Spirea spp.) and viburnum (Viburnum).
Clematis, grapevines and other woody vines can also be pruned back in late fall or late winter/early spring before new growth emerges.
On the other hand, many shrubs bloom on year-old wood; they should be pruned in springtime right after the flowers have faded. After they are cut back, the plant will grow new branches and form buds that will bloom the following year. Shrubs in this group that are commonly grown here include barberry (berberis), daphne (Daphne odorata), forsythia (Forsythia), honeysuckle (Lonicera), Japanese rose (Kerria japonica), jasmine (Jasminum), lilac (Syringa), mock orange (Philadelphus), ninebark (Physocarpus), andromeda (Pieris), spring-blooming spirea (Spiraea) and weigela (Weigela).
So in just a few words — go easy on shrub pruning right now; it’ll help keep the little darlings healthy and happy.
— Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.