Time to prune


Snow is coming down fast (again) as I type this so, though I find it hard to believe, spring really isn’t too far away, which means it’s time to talk about pruning shrubs.  

First, though, I want to let you know that I’ve changed the name of my column and blog from Everyday Gardener to Livin’ Thing. I made the change because I want to write more about all sorts of livin’ things rather than focusing solely on gardening.

Last week, for example, I learned many fascinating things about animals while reading “Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind” by Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Such as: Despite their fictional representation, great white sharks rarely bite people and, if they do, they usually spit them out quickly; mother hummingbirds leave the nest 10 to 110 times a day to find food for their babies; and a single sucker (and they have 1,600 of them) on a large, male giant Pacific octopus can lift thirty pounds. 

When I die, I hope to find that reincarnation is actually a thing, so I can come back as a nature and science writer like Montgomery, who travels the world reporting on the lives and behavior of creatures.

Today, in my current form, I’d like to offer you some insight into pruning, which can be trickier than it looks. March is a great time to prune many shrubs because they are dormant, or nearly so, which means they won’t produce an unruly amount of new growth like they would in warmer weather.

Steer clear of shrubs that bloom on last year’s growth — lilacs, forsythias, chokecherries, azaleas and rhododendrons — or you’ll cut off this season’s blooms, and that can be a real bummer. So, wait until shortly after those beauties have bloomed to get out the clippers.

Feel free to go ahead and chop shrubs that are more about their foliage than flowers, such as dogwoods, sumac, viburnums, burning bush, barberry, alpine currant and ninebark. But take care to follow some basic strategies for pruning, or over time (I speak from experience) you’ll end up with weird-looking shrubs that have big-old trunks and lots of little, spindly twigs sticking up all over the place at the top. 

To keep shrubs looking their best and at the right height, remove about a third of the older branches each year. Cut them off as close to the ground as possible to encourage new growth from the roots.

For monster shrubs that have hardly ever seen a pruner — so they are a zillion feet tall and have all manner of out-of-control growth going everywhere — DO NOT grab a pruner and hack them back to a reasonable height or you will create the ugly shrubs I described earlier. Instead, use a pruner, lopping shears and/or saw to cut all of the branches down to the ground.

Yes, it is hard work and your shrubs will look awful for a season. But you will not believe how gorgeous shrubs that are rejuvenated in this way can be in just one year’s time. 

If you simply cannot bear to cut an older shrub to the ground, but it is at least the right height, you can try giving it a proper trim.

Start by examining the cluster of top growth and choosing the strongest branch that is going in the direction you want it to. Remove all of the other branches back to the trunk or a main limb. You’re doing this right if what used to be a lot of branches coming off one main limb or the trunk is now one lone branch that looks much like the leader of a tiny tree (see the illustration by my lovely husband, Mike Hoium). 

Got shrubs that are older, but not really out of control?

Try doing a “hard prune,” where you cut branches back by half or even two-thirds. If you do this, your cuts should be below the spot where a branch forks so you’ll be left with neat, straight branches.

For a more complete list of shrubs and more in-depth pruning information, check out this University of Minnesota Extension publication. 

Meleah Maynard is a writer, editor and master gardener. For more gardening ideas and tips, visit her blog, which has been renamed Livin’ Thing, at livinthing.com.