How do I prune?

stephanie38July 28, 2007

I am a novice gardener in Massachusetts; in fact I'm just starting. I'm learning a lot from the Internet, particularly gardening forums like this one. Please forgive this rudimentary question, but I can't find any detailed instructions on how to prune. So far this summer I've planted a lilac tree, hydrangeas, carpet roses, Summer Wine Ninebark, Black Lace Elderberry, Purple Leaf Sand Cherry, Golden Vicary Privet, Green Luster Holly, Purple Bell Heather, and Calluna SP. Rubrum. All of the instructions for the care and maintenance of these shrubs and flowers talk about pruning - when to prune, etc., but don't explain what pruning really is. I guess I need Gardening for Dummies. By "pruning", am I supposed to cut off flowers or buds after they've bloomed? When I read "prune back", how far "back" should I go? Some of the reading mentions "pinching" instead of "pruning". Am I supposed to literally pinch the buds? Can anybody recommend a good gardening book that explains all of this? Thanks.

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No but a library card can go a long ways.

I can help you.

In general with very few exceptions (I can only think of Spirea and Crepe Myrtle and some trees) - cutting back more than 1/3 of "woody plants" is going too far. 1/3 however is fine.

Pruning "times" will vary. Those garden plants that put on a one-time only spring show, these need pruning shortly after they have flowered. A time window of 3 weeks and really no longer is when you should cut these back and/or "deadhead the flowers and seed capsules". Reading about Rhododendron Pruning will clarify this for you a bit better.

Privets are not known for their flowering displays. You can hack away anytime. Ideally, pruning for any of these would be from Fall to Early Spring.

Your roses you're going to wait until Spring and cut them back to buds that are actively growing (for space confinement). I say for space confinement because "you" are really in charge of just how large you want them to be. Any "rose".

Ninebarks are one-time spring bloomers. Sometimes and this applies with any shrub you might just have an untidy sore thumb that drives you nuts, so you prune it... You'll learn that pruning becomes a practive of understanding that each year the shrubs have more vigor (more root) - so as an example, pruning more as they age keeps them more at bay.

Anyway - The Holly - prune anytime.
the Heather - prune anytime.
Calluna is heather - prune anytime. After flowering pruning can aid in the production of more flowers (a second burst).

The sand cherry is a one-time spring bloomer.
Same with the Elderberry.

Hydrangeas that are not woody plants will be treated as would ornamental grasses. They are pruned low to the ground (ground level) and re-generate each year.

Woody Hydrangeas, (I'm not positive) - I'd carefully examine the buds on the shrub/vine/tree - The flowering buds will always look different. These are usually swollen and the foliage buds are less swollen.

It's a matter girl of examining the plants over and over throughout the growing season. Learning what the differences are in the buds... it's something you just don't learn right away.

Get that card out. Start reading. You'll get it.



    Bookmark   July 28, 2007 at 6:56PM
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Wait till you buy a Clematis!



    Bookmark   July 28, 2007 at 7:08PM
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Should I prune my half dead-looking ornamental holly (which would leave it looking a bit like a green popsicle right now) or will it fill in again, assuming I haven't killed it?

    Bookmark   July 28, 2007 at 9:02PM
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laceyvail(6A, WV)

There are a number of good books on pruning. Either look around at Amazon or go to the library. It can be confusing, but a good book will go a long, long way to pointing you in the right direction.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2007 at 6:09AM
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You absolutely need a pruning book or a hands-on class in pruning. And then you need a book anyway, as different shrubs/trees are pruned differently - some not at all - and at different times and unless you are quite experienced, it's difficult to remember what needs what and when :-)

Far and away the best pruning text on the market is the AHS Guide to Pruning and Training, edited by Christopher Brickel. Extremely detailed and carefully illustrated, it is very easy for even a novice to follow.

I'd also disagree with most of the specific pruning advice provided above. There are OPTIMUM times for pruning, based both on the plant in question and your climate, there are degrees of severity and there are specific techniques for specific types of plants. Asking for pruning advice on an Internet forum will simply generate too many different answers, most of which are incorrect. It's rather startling what most laypersons do not know about correct pruning techniques and practices.

Perennials are a whole 'nother can of worms and require different approaches, including deadheading and dividing, seasonal clean-up/cutting back and pinching to increase budding and reduce legginess. The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DeSabato-Aust should be your primary resource for these.

Both texts are available at better bookstores, many garden centers or through Amazon.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2007 at 7:51AM
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'I'd also disagree with most of the specific pruning advice provided above. '

Me too.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2007 at 9:53AM
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Good luck then!

I prune when I feel like it or I know a plant has flowered, if it should/will flower again, ..... especially in winter I do sculpting of some, spring for the one-time spring show on these, propagation pruning, hardwood cuttings in the winter, semi-hardwood around July through September, softwood in spring...

Who knows, such a broad question and I don't recall anybody else giving advice - other than "read this."

Walk through garden centers and ask questions. I carried a book at my side for I'd say two years. I read it day and night - cover to cover - and it never left my hands at work when I was helping a customer.

I also learned that pruning wasn't a big deal with exceptions being that plants may not bloom if they are pruned at the wrong times. The clues are usually visible in the buds. Pruning in winter in colder climates such as ours (Z5) also properly give the wood a chance to heal before the bugs appear. I mean there is so much not to learn really... once you recognize signs (getting up close with the plants) - and you read, .....blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - then you eventually learn. You learn similarities.

I wish you the best of luck.

GardenGal is an icon of knowlege around here. I consider gardening to be less of a thought process than most, but for perfection, you can count on this person. Me, and like a carpenter, I have the basics - shovel, tree, water, and that's about it. To build, I use a level, a hammer, and a drill and screwdriver and a saw.

You'll become aware that gardening isn't all that tough. It's very simple actually. A lot of common sense. Doesn my soil drain? - Am I digging the hole wide enough? - Did I look at the root system thoroughly before I planted? - Am I watering as needed? - those are the elements. Pruning is just another simple part.

I'm bored. Obviously. I don't kill plants though, and they bloom as expected, set fruit or seed as expected, and I only lose something every now and then. Hardly a death ever in my landscape. Heck, I haven't had mulch for 3 years... but I "WATER." I weed. .........the basics!


    Bookmark   July 29, 2007 at 10:26AM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

Heaths and heathers (Callunas) should be sheared right after they finish blooming. This keeps them tidy and compact but does not turn them into muffins.

The new growth will start at the end of the flowering stems and when the dead flowers fall off there are bare sections. You want to prune off all the flowering stems just below the flowers to avoid this. Using a scissor type grass or hedge shear is the easiest way to do this.

They are the only plants on your list that I absolutely must prune every year.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2007 at 8:59PM
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leslie197(z5 MI)

Stephanie, here are some thoughts based on my experience as a self-taught gardener on some of your shrubs. Hopefully this will help some.

The ninebark, elderberry, sand cherry & golden privet are all very hardy shrubs. You're not going to hurt them by pruning. The first three have nice flowers (blooming in May-June here) so it is best to not prune until after they bloom. You should be able to prune these new shrubs with snips from a hand pruner. You won't need hedge clippers or heavy tools.

You can cut them back quite a bit without bothering them, to keep them the size you want. However, I don't ususally do much pruning at all on new shrubs the first year. I want them growing roots and settling in - not growing new leaves. Hopefully you gave them enough space that they won't need anything much but a spring touchup for at least a few years.

Sometimes pruning helps to thicken up a sprawly plant, which can greatly help the looks of the shrub. However, don't flat-top or meatball them, it's ugly, but try to go with the natural shape of the shrub. That's part of the reason I suggested using hand pruners - it's not easy to meatball a shrub one branch at a time with a hand pruner.

My Diablo Ninebarks had a tendancy when young to send out really long stems which then flopped over. So year 2, 3, 4 I cut them back pretty hard after bloomtime, but left the stems at somewhat irregular lengths. I cut them back to about 4-5 ft. I now let them do pretty much their own thing, except for removing some sprawly growth once in awhile, and taking a bit of side growth off a nearby Helianthus Lemon Queen. They have a nice upright vase shape and are 8-10 feet tall now. I have never bothered to cut off their flowers, & by now the shrubs are much too big for that anyway. I also have a Lady Betty Balfour clematis (bright blue-purple late July-August bloomer) growing into my two Diablos.

My cutleaf green elderberry was bought as a 18 inch whip, so it took awhile (a surprising short while) to turn into a large fat plant about 6-8 ft tall & wider. This one I hacked into a lot - to make it stay in its allotted space - which I really underestimated. I wanted mine to look more tree like - sort of a cheap man's Japanese Maple, or in my case a wet garden's Japanese Maple. Anyway, it didn't work very well & this summer I finally removed it, but it's back sprouting from the ground. LOL.

My guess is that your Black Lace will be more mannerly. The ones I have seen locally have been fairly bushy, so I wouldn't fight that shape if I were you. Just remove any stick-out-y stems as needed in early to mid-summer, after they have bloomed. If your Black Lace is currently kind of awkward looking or sprawly, I would hesitate to cut it this late in the season although since you're a bit warmer than me, so you might get away with it, Anyway, here I would wait, see what it looks like next year after blooming, and then cut it back a ways if it looks thin to you. You may not need to do anything. Since the plant is small, you could cut off the dead flowers, but I rather liked the fruit on my plant.

The purple sand cherry, IME, has proved to be a very open airy shrub with a tendancy to send out a few really long whip-like branches. I have cut mine back repeatedly, but not heavily over the years. Pruning did not seem to do much to change the overall growth pattern of the shrub or thicken it up much, although I have admittedly never tried hedge trimming it as some of my neighbors do. I prefer mine as a sort of delicate purple-red see through shrub/tree, with 5 or 6 main stems and a small open canopy. Clematis Comtesse de Bouchard (pink late June-early July blooms) drag down some its branches, but is really lovely looking.

The golden privet, often used as a hedge plant here, will probably grow really fast for you. This is one that you might eventually want to use a hedge clippers on (electric or hand ones). You can pretty much prune it back how & when you want, but I wouldn't do it too late in the season, if your cold weather can come as quickly as our sometimes do.

When you mentioned your tree lilac, I immediately thought of my Miss Kim lilac, a small slow-growing lilac. If it is Miss Kim, you probably will not need to do anything to it at all except cut off the blooms and bring them in the house. My Miss Kim is a shrub form, but most of the tree ones I see are Miss Kim or other dwarf varieties. I have never had to trim a single stem from her in the half dozen years she has been in my garden. All I do is harvest the flowers!

If it is a faster growing lilac it may need some shaping or you may want to cut off suckers, etc., to keep the tree shape. Do this immediately after bloomtime. If you wait until later in the summer, you will be cutting off next year's flowers. A hard prune late in the year is often used to re-juvenate an overgrown or poor blooming lilac, but it does sacrifice the next year's show.

I only have 3 hollies (no idea of the variety) and they have remained fairly smallish shrubs for a dozen years, although they look healthy enough. I do a minimal amount of trimming to keep them neat, usually cutting off a small portion of the new growth once in spring, if I get around to it. Some years they put out a few long stems which I nip off, & once in awhile like this past year, they get some dieback that I must prune off. The single female holly gets some late fall branches pruned off for a Christmas basket I do each year for the house. The late pruning never seems to bother it, or cause any unusual dieback problems. I would just wait & watch your holly for a year or two, then make a decision on how to or if you need to prune.

Sorry, don't grow any heaths or heathers.

Oh BTW, although pinching can be done on buds (leaf or flower), what is usually meant is pinching off the growing stem with your finger & thumb, so the plant will branch. I don't do much of it - usually just snipping with my hand pruners which I carry whenever I walk through any part of my garden. I did read an online entry (can't remember where) that said that the Black Lace Elderberry could be pinched up to August 1st to make it bushier, so the growth must be soft enough to do easily with fingers, if you want.
I just don't associate pinching with shrubs very much, just with perennials. Most of my shrubs are pretty old & tough for fingertip pruning! Good luck & enjoy your new shrubs.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2007 at 7:51PM
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I have watered my Liberty Holly a lot, but it still looks terrible. Could it be lack of sun? It is tucked in a corner of our house with other shrubs (2 azaleas, a rhododendron, and a nandina) plus nearby large trees which shade it. I guess my tree isn't dead, but it sure looks bad with the lower half of its branches bare. Could using Hollytone at the wrong time have done this? I put some around it in April. I haven't pruned the bare branches because I was hoping they'd leaf out again.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 10:53PM
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