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Dear Garden Gnome: Pruning Shrubs For Dummies

Dear Garden Gnome,

When is the proper time to prune my flowering shrubs and what is the best way to prune them?

Pruning is a source of worry and anxiety for many gardeners. Ok, maybe not everyone loses sleep over their garden. But how and when to prune are common questions asked by gardeners. Luckily, for us, there are a few good tips to maintain and enjoy your flowering shrubs and trees. A lot of beginner gardeners believe that they must prune regularly to keep their shrubs in good condition. Pruning just to keep that branch out of your face is not always the best reason to remove it. Most shrubs only need one pruning a year.

Pruning common shrubs like Lilac and Forsythia into a tight hedge may look great for entertaining but isn’t always great for the plants. Many flowering shrubs will look their best when allowed to grow into their natural form. Azaleas are most striking when you let them grow naturally, letting light shine in through natural openings of the shrub while the flowers travel around the branches. They can grow up to 10 feet and in spring their natural division gives the impression of dancing flowers throughout the surface of the shrub.

Frequent shearing encourages a lot of surface branching, which can result in an unhealthy structure and reduced flowering. If you really want a tightly sheared look in your garden, choose a plant, like Privet or Ilex. These are great for growing a green privacy wall. I can remember as a 12 year old kid, moving into a new house with a hedge of Forsythia along one side of the yard. For me, it was more practical to use it as a fort rather than a hedge. The branches would flower and grow over the base of the shrub, leaving a tunnel system to hide in; I would let my mind submerge into the world of Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe. I did this during the warm days until early July, when my mom would tell me it’s time to cut the hedge back because it is taking over the yard. Little did I know, it was not the proper time to trim this hedge. As I grew older, the Forsythia stopped blooming and died from improper pruning. If I knew then what I know now, I would still have a fort and my mother would still have a great hedge.

One of the most frequent questions that we get on the farm is, why are my flowering shrubs not flowering? Shrubs that bloom in early spring, usually produce their flower buds during the fall and winter, and then open in the spring. If you prune these types of plants too soon, you’ll remove the flower buds and won’t have blooms for the coming year.

Instead, prune after the flowers bloom. Remove any dead or broken branches during any time of the season. Don’t put off pruning; get it done before the heat of summer sets in. I am a firm believer that most summer garden chores should be completed before the heat bakes you like a prune in the sun. It’s time to enjoy your garden and play with your kids under the canopy of flowering plants.

Summer-flowering shrubs should be pruned in late winter or early spring. Many summer-flowering shrubs bloom on the current year’s growth. Pruning them back in later winter encourages them to produce more new growth during summer and will result in more flowers. Don’t be afraid to cut fast growing plants, such as Buddleia, down to as little as 10-12” tall.

The exception to the summer-flowering rule is Hydrangeas and Spirea. When you should prune, depends on the variety. You’ll need to identify what type of Hydrangea you have and follow the appropriate rule. Big blue or pink flowering Hydrangea and Oakleaf Hydrangeas will bloom on old wood; the little pruning they need should be done immediately after flowering. The white, rounded, mound flowers of an Annabelle Hydrangea will bloom on new wood. They’ll produce better flowers if cut back in late winter. Do your research to make sure that you are pruning your verity back at the appropriate time.

Another thing to be mindful of while gardening are suckers, which are branches that are growing up from the base of the shrub or tree and sprout up in during the summer growing season. I advise that you remove them as part of your gardening process. It’s important that you try and break suckers off the shrub so that it can heal over. If you only have the ability to cut suckers off of a shrub, keep an eye on them — suckers have tendencies to grow back with two stems making it harder to remove them in later seasons. The shrub will not be affected if you go ahead and remove a few branches.

Ultimately, your landscape shrubs don’t need as much pruning as you think. The key is properly determining when to trim a particular plant. Remember to prune summer bloomers in late winter and spring bloomers right after flowering — just check the Hydrangea rule before you trim them. Stray, dead or broken branches can be trimmed off any time.  Thank Mother Nature that plants are very forgiving, so even if you miss a season of flowers the plant will recover for the next year.

When you prune your trees and shrubs correctly it will give you a sense of accomplishment. Always take a step back and study the shape you are going for. Look twice and cut once; keep in mind the results you are striving for. Your garden should be a reflection of your creative side, there is no right or wrong answers. If your garden makes you happy, that is all that matters. The Jones moved out last year.

Send your question to the Spirit and I would be happy to offer advice and suggestions to help you make your gardening experience a more enjoyable one.

Think Sustainable, keep greening and growing,

David Prendergast

Farm Manager, Greensgrow Farms

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