Pruning shrubs and bushes is a dreaded chore to some and an enjoyable task to others. Personal feelings aside, pruning is a necessary part of caring for outdoor shrubs and bushes. Regular maintenance not only helps to shape and encourage new growth, getting up close and personal with the plants helps in the early identification of pest infestations and diseases. Many shrubs can be pruned in the early spring just when a green thumb is just beginning to itch. Some shrubs and bushes fare better done at other times of the year. Knowing just when to prune is an all-important step to maintaining healthy and attractive plants.
Shrubs and bushes fall into two broad categories; deciduous and evergreen. The deciduous plants and trees are the ones who lose their leaves in the fall. Most shrubs can be separated into two more categories; flowering or fruit bearing. Fruit bearers should be pruned in late winter or early spring before new growth starts. Light pruning of spring flowering shrubs should be done after they bloom.
Wisteria, honeysuckle, flowering dogwood, potentilla, and most varieties of spirea need pruned in early spring while they are still dormant. Some of the spring bloomers that should be pruned after blooming are; lilac, forsythia, azalea, mockorange, rhododendron, and big leaf hydrangea. If you're unsure of your variety of shrub or it's not one of the ones listed here check with your local nursery.
Neglected, overgrown shrubs that need cut back hard should be taken on in late winter or early spring. You'll need to sacrifice the current year's bloom for the health of the shrub. In varieties that bloom on last year's growth it may take a year or two before you see blooms again. These are always the hardest to do but remember it will be worth it in the end!
Prune summer bloomers like spirea or Rose of Sharon in late winter or early spring. These bloom on the current year's growth. Pruning in late winter or early spring will not affect this year's bloom on these hardy shrubs. A hard cutback on these would best be done immediately after blooming.
Deciduous shrubs and plants will come back from a hard cut back but remember; evergreens will not. If you take all the growth from an evergreen it will die off. Most varieties of evergreens do best when lightly pruned in early summer. Cutting back on approximately one third of the current year's growth will encourage an evergreen to fullness. More extensive pruning can be done in the spring before new growth starts.
When heavy pruning shrubs that grow in the form of long whips like forsythia make sure you follow the branch all the way back. An excessive amount of deadwood at the base will choke the shrub. This is also true for lilacs. An unkempt lilac will literally choke itself with deadwood.
With nearly all shrubs, bushes and trees; pruning in late fall leaves them susceptible to winter damage. The only exception to this is there has been damage from an unexpected event. In this case it would be far better for you to make a clean, angled cut behind the break. A ragged cut takes longer to heal on a shrub just as it does on a person. Longer healing can put the plant at more risk for disease and pest infestation.
Remember to keep pruning equipment sharp and clean. Wipe them off with a clean rag after use and give them a light coat of household oil to prevent rusting. Don't forget to protect yourself. Shrubs with thorns and varieties of evergreens with sharp needles can scratch hard enough to draw blood. Long sleeves and gloves can be a gardener's best friends.
Knowing when to prune is the first step to maintaining attractive shrubs and bushes. When the work is done don't forget to take leisurely steps down the garden path and enjoy your success.