What Should I Prune Now? Grumpy Cuts to the Chase

June 5, 2014 | By | Comments (18)

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 late 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.

 

Pruning

Azaleas. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

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.

Pruning

Chaste tree. Photo by Steve Bender

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.

Pruning

Crepe myrtle. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

Pruning

Forsythia. Photo by Steve Bender.

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: Try rooting gardenia cuttings in water.

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.

'Endless Summer' hydrangea. Photo by Steve Bender.

‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea. Photo by Steve Bender.

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 5 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.

Pruning

‘Knockout’ rose. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

Pruning

Loropetalum. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

Pruning

Oleander. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

Pruning

Rhododendron. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

Pruning

Wisteria. Photo by Steve Bender.

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Beth,
    Lucky Arthur was a pretty wimpy hurricane, eh? Only prune off any broken or damaged branches. You might want to soak the soil around it to wash out any salt.

    July 10, 2014 at 1:46 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    Shirley,
    Sorry, but this is the natural progression of things. After a while, hydrangea flowers fade.

    July 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm
  3. Beth Parker Henry

    We just went thru Hurricane Arthur. While we were lucky with no major damage, my beloved crepe myrtle really took a salty, windy (100 mph) beating. I was wondering if I should trim it back.alittle, so maybe it would re bloom. Thanks for the info. Yes, I did rinse off the salt water as soon as the sun came up!

    July 9, 2014 at 3:07 pm
  4. Shirley

    Dear Grumpy…I have a question for You Please…My Hydrangeas R so full and pretty this year, But… the blue flowers R turning green once the mophead has completely flowered, instead of staying blue. I have not done anything different…I am in Gainesville, Florida

    July 5, 2014 at 7:06 am
  5. Steve Bender

    Eileen,

    A lot of people are having trouble with their hydrangeas this year because of the unusually cold winter. The cold killed the flower buds. Hopefully, next winter won’t be so cold.

    June 30, 2014 at 2:39 pm
  6. Eileen Phelps

    I have managed to prune the hydrangeas correctly and now protect them from the deer. However, last summer and so far this year, 4 of the bushes do not show any flowers. What causes this and how do I rectify the situation?

    June 26, 2014 at 6:59 pm
  7. ThirSteps

    And I can’t believe that my gardening hero, Steve Bender is actually going to read my comment…sigh, you’re right up there with my other hero, Benjamin Franklin!

    June 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm
  8. ThirSteps

    Whenever I want to kill something that is too hard for me to dig up or I’m just too lazy to do it, I cut it all the way to the ground. Then I put a large potted plant in that location. If it’s sunny, pick something that takes the sun, if in the shade, put in begonias, impatiens, hosta (the snails will love you) etc. In a few months, the plant is dead. While I have had to wait a whole year for a stupid pecan tree that kept coming back, usually the maximum amount of time I have to wait is 6 months. Got rid of a lot of poison ivy that way when I first bought my house. I’ve never heard of cat briars but I’m looking that up.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:45 pm
  9. Sunday Morning Coffee » Elizabeth-Michelle.com

    […] What should I prune now? — I fail at pruning regularly. There’s this wicked spot right up against the study window that is bound and determined to one day grow into the vine covered storybook forest it knows it is destined to be. We fight. Really violent, bloody stuff. There are rosebushes and rogue vines and these spiky weeds and burrs and it’s ugly. I went away for two weeks and the thing staged a takeover. So this link is mostly for me and my terrible pruning, but maybe it’ll help you, too. […]

    June 15, 2014 at 10:35 am
  10. Steve Bender

    Amy,

    Proper pruning time for butterfly bush is in the list above.

    June 12, 2014 at 10:56 am
  11. Steve Bender

    Linda,

    To kill the cat briers, fill a bucket with water and add the right amount of Roundup to it as specified on the label. Place the bucket next to the vine. Wearing rubber gloves, curl up as much of the vine as you can without breaking the stems and push them into the liquid. Leave them there for 4-5 days. The leaves and stems will absorb the chemical and carry it down to kill the tubers and roots.

    June 12, 2014 at 10:55 am
  12. TomW

    I was looking forward to your pruning advice for Bradford Pears as well :-) Though, I’ve already taken care of that problem in my yard.

    June 12, 2014 at 8:02 am
  13. A Lesson on Writing, Gardening, and Life from Maya Angelou | joanneeddy's blog

    […] What Should I Prune Now? Grumpy Cuts to the Chase […]

    June 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm
  14. Jeanne Dozier

    Grumpy, I completely agree with your position vis-a-vis the shrubs elaeagnus, photinia and privet but I would add Burford holly to the list. Those wretched leaves will continue slashing through the toughest gardening gloves long after they are dead and shredded and the original plant is long gone. I know. I once had four large ones drug out of the ground by chains attached to a large trunk and taken far, far away.

    June 7, 2014 at 12:49 am
  15. Linda

    I just asked about the Nandinas I also would like to know how to kill cat briars. Until I moved here the entire yard had been in horrible neglect. The crape myrtles were overgrown with every known vining weed and maybe some unknown too Ha but the worst was the cat briars. I can not tell you how many I have dug up and the very first one I dug up scared me. I thought I had found an alien living in the yard. Anyway, after digging half way to china I got a lot of them out but now they are coming back. What can I do to kill them without killing myself. They have horrible thorns and are again taking over the huge crape myrtles. I’ve been at war with the cat briars and Nandinas and wild ivy. The wild ivy is easier to pull up because of the shallow root system but it’s like the hub of an interstate going in every direction and even growing over and under itself. As you can probably tell I am quite frustrated with all this. It seems to be a never ending battle. Any additional help on how to deal with the cat briars will be much appreciated!!! Thank you again!

    June 6, 2014 at 8:21 am
  16. Linda

    Thank you for this pruning list!! After reading I realized I have encouraged the Nandinas to grow better. I was trying to kill them and cut them down to the ground because they were growing right in the middle of a huge old azalea. I have tried to dig them up but the roots are horrible to get up. What can I do to get rid of them but not kill the azaleas? I hate Nandinas. Btw these have been here since 1950′s. Very very old. Thank you for any help!!!!

    June 6, 2014 at 7:45 am
  17. What Should I Prune Now? Grumpy Cuts to the Chase | FlipsPops

    […] (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({}); 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. Read full article […]

    June 6, 2014 at 12:42 am
  18. Amy O

    What about Butterfly Bush?
    Thanks!

    June 5, 2014 at 5:22 pm

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