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Timing is Key to Successful Pruning

A string of bad hair days usually sends me straight to the barber’s chair. When my unruly locks grow past a certain point, I know it’s time for a good pruning, as it were. The same holds true for many of the flowering shrubs in my garden. A good percentage of blooming shrubs used in

A string of bad hair days usually sends me straight to the barber’s chair. When my unruly locks grow past a certain point, I know it’s time for a good pruning, as it were. The same holds true for many of the flowering shrubs in my garden.

A good percentage of blooming shrubs used in our landscapes flower on what nursery professionals refer to as second-year wood. This means that the new shoots the plant sends up this growing season are the ones that will bloom next year — or, if you will, in their second year. There is one caveat, however, and that is that the shoots need time to mature before winter arrives. Shrubs that produce new shoots too late in the growing season will not produce flowers the following spring.

Keeping that in mind, the best time to prune many flowering shrubs is immediately after they are finished flowering. For most mid- to late-spring blooming shrubs, this allows plenty of time to produce an abundance of new growth and still have plenty of time for that new growth to mature.

Several years ago, I planted a shrub border in my yard. Much like a perennial border, a shrub border consists of a variety of different plants with varying shapes, textures, leaf colors and bloom times. Planted correctly and properly cared for, a shrub border can provide year-round interest without the high degree of maintenance required of a perennial border. An annual pruning, a light application of fertilizer and a quick top-dressing of mulch are all that are required to keep the border looking good.

My shrub border begins blooming in early May and continues through a succession of bloom until late summer. Once the late summer bloomers have finished, several varieties of shrubs with showy fruit take center stage. In order to maintain the border, I prune the shrubs in it according to their bloom time.

Shrubs such as Vitex or Abelia grandiflora, which bloom in late summer on growth produced the same season, are pruned early in the spring before they leaf out. This encourages the plant to produce plenty of new growth followed by flowers while maintaining the plant’s size. Spring pruning is also helpful for Buddleia, the common butterfly bush, as well.

Shrubs that bloom from early May through July, such as the fragrant double blooms of Philadelphus ‘Buckley’s Quill’ or the pearly white flower clusters of Itea virginica, are cut back as soon as they finish flowering. This rule of thumb holds true for other spring-blooming favorites such as lilacs, Kolkwitzia (commonly called beauty bush) and Weigela ‘Wine and Roses,’ a beautiful shrub with dark red foliage and pink, tubular flowers.

Evergreen shrubs such as the elegant variegated boxwood, with its dark green, elliptically shaped leaves bordered in white, or the dwarf form of Ilex glabra, commonly known as inkberry, are given a quick shaping in early spring and then left to grow out naturally over the next several months. Some dwarf evergreens such as Pinus parviflora ‘Adcock’s dwarf’ don’t require any pruning at all due to their small stature.

Keep in mind that some groups of shrubs such as viburnums are planted for their clusters of fruit, which ripen after their flowers are pollinated. These types of shrubs are best pruned lightly in early spring. I remove old and dead branches out of the center of the plant to let light in and to encourage new suckering from the base of the plant. If they grow too big, I give them a hard pruning in early spring to get them under control. Often this means sacrificing fruit for a year, but I am careful not to cut back all of them in the same year so the border still has some shrubs bearing fruit come fall.

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