Spring Pruning

Spiraea

I know, you’re just itching to get out in the garden and DO something!  You poke about under the mulch to see if what bulbs are coming up, you inspect the rose bushes to see if there is any life showing and you are just dying to do something, anything that might bring on spring a little quicker.

While we can’t speed up time we can certainly get out in the garden and DO something.  One thing you can do is take your nicely sharpened and clean pruners (because you follow the gardeners rule book of cleaning and sharpening your tools after you’ve done your fall tidy up) and whack off a branch or two to make yourself feel better.  Ok, maybe ‘whack’ isn’t the proper term but it’s more fun to say than ‘make a precise cut, at a diagonal, above an outward facing node.”

So, out into the garden we go with secateurs at the ready (a fancy name for pruners).   While the ‘rules’ of pruning can fill a good sized book, heavy enough to press daisies, the guideline for pruning in the winter and early spring is to leave alone spring blooming trees and shrubs as you’ll cut off this year’s flower buds.   Spring blooming plants would include forsythia and lilacs.

What you do want to be pruning are summer blooming plants like roses and cistus (rockrose) and many deciduous shrubs because most set their buds later in spring after they’ve done some growing.  There are always exceptions to every rule and one is to avoid pruning dogwood trees, birches, walnuts and maple trees in late winter and early spring as the sap is running at that time.  It apparently doesn’t harm the plant but it does make one feel a bit concerned when stuff starts seeping out of a fresh cut so avoid any worry and tackle those ones at a later time.

I’m going to target shrubs here because, like I said earlier, there are too many rules of pruning to fit in to one article.  So, go find your shrub, something like a spiraea or wegeila.   Now that you’re standing in front of the unsuspecting shrub we have to remember the three ‘D’s.  Dead, damaged and diseased.  These all have to be tended to first and it’s pretty simple.  Remove anything dead, damaged or diseased (and don’t forget to disinfect your pruners before moving on).  Then stand back and have a look.  Does the plant really need any pruning or was it just in need of a tidy up?

I am a firm believer in selective pruning, taking no more than 30% off the plant in any given year.  This works especially well if you’re unsure of what to prune when because you’ll always be left with that other percentage that you hadn’t cut off which will have retained its flower buds.  Selective pruning also allows you to take a step back and realize that you were this close to making a grievous error and rendering the plant so ugly that you may as well have taken a chain saw to the whole thing from the beginning.

Pruning selectively makes you think about what you’re doing.  Instead of shearing off the top and sides of a shrub, which in itself isn’t a good thing, you’re choosing which branches are detrimental to the overall shape or esthetics of the plant.

Find the worst culprit or longest branch and follow it down with your hand into the shrub past one or two forks (where it’s joined by another branch) and cut just above a fork where the remaining branch faces outward.  Stand back and have a look then do the same to the next most offending branch until you’ve cut out about a third of the shrub (if you need to go that far).  By pruning properly you’re left with a smaller but more natural looking plant and definitely a healthier one.

Now that you’ve managed to put those pruners to good use by selectively making a precise cut, at a diagonal, just above an outward facing node don’t you feel like spring is just around the corner?  We can only hope.  Meanwhile go clean and sharpen your pruners.

Shirley Eppler

February 2013