What Should I Prune Now? Grumpy Cuts to the Chase

May 9, 2011 | By | Comments (30)

Pruning is one garden task that scares the All-Bran out of people. They’re afraid that if they prune something at the wrong time, they’ll ruin it, kill it, or look like a dolt. Relax, my children. The Grump is here to help.

If you remember this one rule, you’ll cut your pruning mistakes in half. (I’m so clever. It’s a gift.) The best time to prune a flowering tree, shrub, or vine is after it finishes blooming. So prune spring-flowering woody plants in late spring and early summer. Prune summer-flowering woody plants in late fall or winter. Ignore this rule and your plant probably won’t bloom the next year and you’ll get all pouty and irritated.

Because it’s spring, lots of people want to know how to tell whether a plant is dead and should be pruned back. Here’s a simple test. Use Your fingernail to scratch the outer bark of the questionable tree or shrub. If you see green underneath, the plant’s still alive and may leaf out. If you don’t, the branch or trunk above the scratch is dead, so you might as well cut that part off. Prune back to the highest point where you can still find green.

OK, Grumpy could write a whole book covering every aspect of pruning, but I don’t have the space or time. Instead, let me give easy guidelines for when to prune some of our most popular woody plants.

Azalea (evergreen). Best time to prune: Immediately after flowering stops in spring; definitely by mid-June. Comments: Use hand pruners, not hedge trimmers. Cut back to a leaf or another branch.

Azaleas 003

Beautyberry. Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comment: Cut back hard. Blooms on new growth.

Butterfly bush: Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comment: Same care as for beautyberry.

Blackberry. Best time to prune: Spring. Comments: Cut off at the ground all canes that fruited last year. They’re dead. New fruiting canes will replace them.

Blueberry. Best times to prune: Winter or late spring after flowering. Comments: Remove dead branches. If fruit set is heavy, use hand pruners to remove some fruiting branches now and leave remainder well-spaced. Remaining berries will be larger and sweeter.

Boxwood. Best time to prune: Spring and summer. Comments: Can shear them into formal hedges if you want. Otherwise, use hand pruners to open up the plants and remove some inner branches, so the plants aren’t solid blobs. Improved air circulation reduces disease.

Chaste tree (Vitex). Best time to prune: Late winter and again in summer after first bloom. Comments: Chaste tree produces lots of twigs and needs regular pruning to keep from looking like a mess. Grumpy always cleans out the interior growth in winter, leaving the main trunks looking like a well-trained crepe myrtle. If you prune off the faded flowers in summer, you’ll usually get a second bloom.

Chaste tree 005

Common camellia. Best time to prune: Late spring and early summer. Comment: To reduce size, use hand pruners to cut back branches to a leaf or bud.

Crepe myrtle. Best time to prune: Late winter and early spring. Comments: DO NOT CHOP IT DOWN INTO THICK, UGLY STUMPS! For step-by-step instruction on the correct way to prune, click here.

DSCF1357

Dogwood. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Hardly ever needs pruning.

Elaeagnus. Best time to prune: Any time you have a chainsaw. Comment: Grumpy hates elaeagnus.

Fig. Best time to prune: Spring. Comment: Often damaged by cold winters. Wait until new growth starts in spring, then prune off all dead branches above it.

Flowering quince. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Watch out for thorns.

Forsythia. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comments: If you have an old, overgrown plant, renew it by cutting to the ground 1/3 of the oldest, woodiest trunks. Do this for 3 straight years. New, vigorous growth will grow rapidly.

Jim Gibbs 044

Fruit trees. Best time to prune: Winter or late spring after flowering. Comments: Remove dead, rubbing, or crossing branches; also branches growing inward towards center of trees. Open up center of trees for better air and light penetration. Thinning fruiting branches results in bigger, juicier fruits on the remaining branches.

Gardenia. Best time to prune: Summer after flowers turn yellow and drop. Comment: I don’t like liver and I never will.

Holly (evergreen). Best time to prune: Any time except late summer. Comment: Grumpy likes to prune in December for the berries. He’s so festive and sentimental!

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle.’ Best time to prune: Winter. Comments: Blooms on new growth. Severe pruning results in larger, but fewer blooms.

Hydrangea French types (blue or pink flowers). Best time to prune: For once-blooming types like ‘Nikko Blue,’ prune in summer after blooms fade. Finish by mid-July. For rebloomers like ‘Endless Summer,’ prune in winter, spring, or summer. Comment: Prune as little as possible, primarily removing dead and spindly growth.

ESummer

Hydrangea ‘Limelight.’ Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comments: Treat same as ‘Annabelle.” Prune ‘Peegee’ and ‘Tardiva’ this way too.

Hydrangea, oakleaf. Best time to prune: Summer after flowers turn rose. Comments: Seldom needs pruning.

Indian hawthorn. Best time to prune: Late spring or summer after flowering. Comment: Doesn’t need much pruning. Prune or pinch new growth to control it.

Juniper. Best time to prune: Any time. Comment: Cut back to a wispy little shoot of foliage that parallels the original branch.

‘Knockout’ rose. Best time to prune: Winter, spring, summer. Comments: That old adage about pruning reblooming roses back to the first five-leaflet leaf is pure manure (yum!). ‘Knockout’ gets 4 feet tall and wide over time, so cut it back as far as you want in winter or early spring, but don’t cut below the graft union (notch on the trunk where the top meets the rootstock). Trim off old flowers throughout the summer to keep the shrub neat and bring on more blooms.

KO rose1

Leyland cypress. Best time to prune: Winter, spring, summer. Comments: Will get gigantic if you let it go. To control height, use pole pruners to prune out tops, cutting back to the next branch lower down.

Lilac. Best time to prune: Late spring or early summer after flowering. Comment: Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Loropetalum. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: You can shear this shrub into formal hedge; let if form its natural, mounding shape; or remove lower branches to make a single-trunked small tree.

Loropetalum 001

Magnolia, saucer. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Needs very little pruning.

Magnolia, Southern. Best time to prune: Summer or winter. Comments: Shorten branches by using hand pruners or loppers to cut them back to another branch. Cut foliage for Christmas decorations.

Mockorange. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Nandina. Best time to prune: Spring or summer. Comment: Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Oleander. Best time to prune: Summer after flowering. Comments: Cut back last year’s branches by half. Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Belize oleander1

Photinia (redtip). Best time to prune: See recommendations for elaeagnus.

Pittosporum: Best time to prune: Just about any time. Comment: Needs little pruning.

Pomegranate. Best time to prune: Summer after flowering. Comment: Prune to produce well-spaced branches that don’t cross or rub.

Privet. Best time to prune: See recommendations for elaeagnus.

Pyracantha: Best time to prune: Summer. Comments: Keep this baby pruned or it’ll eat your house. Prune back to a crotch or another branch. Don’t leave stubs — they die. Wear leather gloves unless you enjoy anemia.

Rhododendron. Best time to prune: Late spring or early summer after flowering. Comment: Shorten branches by cutting back to another branch.

DSCF0881

Rosemary. Best time to prune: Spring or summer. Comment: Shorten branches to control growth.

Rose-of-Sharon. Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comments: Remove dead, spindly, crossing, and rubbing branches.

Spirea, spring-blooming. Best time to prune: Late spring after blooming. Comment: Renew old shrubs using same technique as for forsythia.

Spirea, summer-blooming. Best time to prune: Winter and early spring. Comment: Shorten branches to 4-5 buds.

Viburnum. Best time to prune: Late spring or summer. Comments: Remove spindly,  crossing, or rubbing branches. Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Wisteria. Best time to prune: Late winter and summer. Comments: For best bloom, cut back spur-like side shoots that grow from main canes to 5-6 buds in late winter. Pinch out tips of runners throughout the summer to control growth. Remove basal suckers whenever they appear.

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COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Susan,
    If you prune back you hydrangeas in spring, you’re cutting off flower buds. So you won’t get any flowers unless they’re the reblooming kind, like ‘Endless Summer.’ Another possibility is that the cold winter killed the flower buds, as they aren’t as hardy as leaf buds.

    August 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm
  2. Susan

    I live in nj & had beautiful hydrangeas for years. They were pruned in April & not one flower this summer . Not sure what 2 do. Heard u should prune in fall but afraid 2 do so. Being they were pruned in spring? Should I put mulch at the roots 2 protect them in case we have another harsh winter? Any info very much appreciated

    August 24, 2014 at 2:33 pm
  3. Pruning done properly with preparation, planning, and good judgment. | Randy's Perennials & Water Gardens | Lawrenceville, GA | 770.822.0676
    July 23, 2014 at 5:22 pm
  4. Thou Shalt Not (Crape) Murder | Georgia Garden Girl

    [...] possible, I’ve included a link to a fact sheet on the shrub.  For more plants/information, see http://thedailysouth.southernliving.com/2011/05/09/can-i-prune-it-now-grumpy-cuts-to-the-chase/. Azaleas.  Prune in the spring after the plant flowers, and only if necessary.  Do not prune if [...]

    February 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Bob,
    You can prune gardenia in either fall or early spring. Prune it just to shape it or reduce the size. Hand pruners are all you’ll need.

    February 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm
  6. Bob Meigs

    How and when do you trim or prune Gardenia’s

    January 26, 2013 at 11:57 am
  7. Tony Collins

    I have found your info. on pruning very good ; a pity I had not seen your site earlier.
    Tony Collins

    May 18, 2012 at 10:12 am
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Jane,
    You can either removed the damaged leaves or wait for them to fall off and be replaced.

    April 30, 2012 at 7:26 am
  9. Jane Adolf

    This is helpful information, thanks. We had a very warm winter in Kentucky. Everyone woke up early. Then, of course, we had several freezing evenings in mid-April. There are a lot of wrinkled, brown leaves on many plants – trees, shrubs, roses, etc. How and when do I deal with the frost-bitten parts?

    April 26, 2012 at 10:30 am
  10. mike

    why don’t my red-rose ever make any red-seeds like the wild-rose does is their a way i could make mine grow the seeds and plus the wild rose has a reddish stem and mine has a green stem why is that i have no clue do you

    February 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Where do you live? I ask this because gentians don’t grow well in the South, so I’m guessing you’re out west. It really would help to have a photo. I can only hazard a guess that you have pleated gentian (Gentiana calycosa). This plant is best propagated by seed.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:18 am
  12. karen

    Thanks again for your advice. I have one additional question, if you don’t mind. I have a plant that I got at end of season clearance two summers ago. It was originally placed with some annuals so I thought it was an annual and just stuck it in an open space in the ground for some color. It has come back every year and now I believe I have a blue gentian plant, but I don’t know specifically which one. I wish I could send you a picture because it is quite stunning with beautiful electric blue flowers. They close at night and open during the day. It is a mounding form and didn’t bloom until early October this year. My question is when and how best to propagate it. ?Divide and if so when. ?root cuttings and if so when. I think a row of them would be nice in my flower border. Right now nothing else is in bloom. thanks again in advance

    November 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm
  13. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Karen,
    Answers to your questions.
    1. No need to deadhead Itea. I blooms only once no matter what you do.
    2. Any perennial that dies back to the ground and leaves only leafless stems can be cut back now. Examples: catmint, asters, mums, phlox, black-eyed Susans, artemsia.
    3. Portulaca — I have never deadheaded it. And unless you live in a frost-free zone, it’s going to die soon anyway, so why bother?
    4. Violas are cool-weather annuals. Once hot weather arrives, they set seed and die. They may come back from seed the following spring.

    November 11, 2011 at 10:08 am
  14. karen

    Oops! Amendment to last post. I meant Little Henry Itea virginica, not spirea

    November 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm
  15. karen

    Oops! Correction to last post: I meant Little Henry Itea virginica, not spirea

    November 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm
  16. karen

    Do you have some similar advice (or suggestions for a reference) on perrenials and perhaps some annuals? It is hard to get advice on what should be deadheaded or sheared back (like catmint, or artemesia,e.g) and when. I planted a border of viola, etain violet this spring. I deadheaded reliably but they got very leggy this summer. I think I subsequently read that you can just “shear them” mid summer? Many of them seemed to die back by late summer. I will see if they come back. I am planning on planting some portulaca next spring. I have read that it is a self seeding annual, but also that it is best to deadhead it for prolonged bloom. Is there a happy medium? Also I have Little Henry spirea. For the first two years I dutifully deadheaded it/them. It is very tedious for me with my arthritis so this year I left them alone. I guess I will see what next spring brings. Any advice, or again if there is a reference book on this information would be appreciated. Thanks in advance

    November 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm
  17. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Claire,
    Do not prune now or I guarantee you won’t get any blooms. The time to prune is in late spring after all the spring shrubs finish blooming. Make sure your weigela gets lots of sun. The more sun it gets, the more blooms you’ll get.

    October 2, 2011 at 6:12 am
  18. Claire

    My Weigela….Wine and Roses did not bloom very much this year? When do you prune these? Do they need fertilize? Thanks for any advice.

    September 28, 2011 at 7:41 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Suzanne,
    I like Bulb-Tone, an organic slow-release product for bulbs. Apply in spring when foliage is 6 inches high. You can get this in garden centers or online. Here’s a link:
    http://www.google.com/products/catalog?client=safari&rls=en&q=espoma+plant+tone&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=6664431315555033741&sa=X&ei=ygUKTuHhFZCutweR3b1n&ved=0CFUQ8wIwBw#ps-sellers
    Lady Banks blooms on growth made the previous year, so the best time to prune is immediately after it finishes flowering in spring.

    June 28, 2011 at 12:53 pm
  20. Suzanne

    1) What type of fertiizer do you recommend for lilies? When and how often to fertilize? Easter Lilies, Star Gazers, etc.
    2) What time of year is best for prunning Lady Banks Roses?

    June 28, 2011 at 8:56 am
  21. plumbing

    Proper pruning enhances the beauty of almost any landscape tree and shrub, while improper pruning can ruin or greatly reduce its landscape potential. In most cases, it is better not to prune than to do it incorrectly. In nature, plants go years with little or no pruning, but man can ruin what nature has created. By using improper pruning methods healthy plants are often weakened or deformed.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:18 am
  22. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Cameron,
    What am I doing wrong? I never get any seedlings.
    Diane,
    I would start renewal pruning on your viburnum as described above. This particular plant does get leggy over time, so periodic pruning is needed.

    May 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm
  23. diane lilley

    i have an opus virburman that i transplanted to the north west side of the house. it blooms but is very leggy. is cutting it back severly the answer or is it not getting enough sun. it gets very bright light and not much sun plus the reflection of the white house.I live in northeast tennessee. you are hilarious and very informative!

    May 12, 2011 at 11:58 am
  24. cameron

    Great list of tips.
    I have a love-hate relationship with chaste trees since I can no longer reach the top to deadhead. Result: a gazillion seedlings with long taproots the day they sprout.

    May 11, 2011 at 9:34 pm
  25. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Hate to tell you this, Carol, but that’s not the way to prune arbor vitae. If you cut them back to just bare trunks, they die.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm
  26. Carol

    Thank you for this great (as always) advice. Question: In mid February I pruned two over grown, well established Arborvitaes back to 6″. Three months later, they are showing no signs of life. Is there any hope for them?

    May 10, 2011 at 10:37 am
  27. Carol

    Thank you for this wonderful (as always) advise. Question: I live in Charlotte NC & pruned very overgrown, well established Arborvitaes in February. I pruned them back to 6″. They’re showing no signs of life 3 months later. Is there any hope? Have I killed them?

    May 10, 2011 at 10:34 am
  28. east texas tree grower leone’

    ever tried spray painting the uglyagnes white and making up a name like “snowball bush”?

    May 10, 2011 at 10:33 am
  29. esh

    I do second your pruning recommendations for elaeagnus and privet! Horrible, out-of-control shrubs that take up space which could be used for far better things ….
    Also appreciate your thoughts that several things hardly ever need to pruning. Site your plants appropriately, people, don’t prune to fit the space and don’t prune just because you think it is a gardening “chore” that must be done.

    May 10, 2011 at 6:42 am
  30. LaUnika

    “Elaeagnus. Best time to prune: Any time you have a chainsaw. Comment: Grumpy hates elaeagnus.”
    You crack me up.
    Thanks so much for the tips.

    May 9, 2011 at 9:32 pm

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