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Brian Minter: Pruning 101 mainly down to timing for a ‘shears’ delight

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Opinion: How do you know which flowering plants to prune at this time of year and which to leave alone? It’s not as simple as it might seem

Author of the article:

Brian Minter

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February 12, 2021 • • February 12, 2021 • • Read for 4 minutes • • Join the conversation Don't be afraid to give your flowering shrubs a haircut when they are done blooming.  They will thank you. Don’t be afraid to give your flowering shrubs a haircut when they are done blooming. They will thank you. Photo by Minter Country Garden

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There is currently a lot of flower loss in many gardens. No, not stealing plants, but losing spring and summer blooms because a lot of people are busy cutting off the buds of their flowering shrubs.

Timing, as the saying goes, is everything, especially when pruning plants.

Think of it this way: lots of flowering trees and shrubs have budded last summer and fall and are ready to deliver great colors this year. If you clip them now, you will remove the source of that color.

Unfortunately, this is not an occasional misstep.

After many years of answering questions on open line radio, I am constantly amazed at how often this problem occurs. Here’s a quick lesson in Pruning 101.

How do you know which flowering plants should be pruned at this time of year and which should not be touched? It’s not as simple as it might seem.

I generally follow a few gardening rules. First, observation is key. Now when you see buds on your plants it is obvious that they should not be pruned. Second, as a rule of thumb, the earlier the plants bloom in the season, the more likely their buds will bloom now. Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) and Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis) are now blooming. Buds on forsythia and quinces (Chaenomeles) are ready to bloom soon.

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Hydrangeas are perhaps the most misunderstood of all flowering shrubs. The most popular are the Mophead types (Hydrangea macrophylla), which are now full of buds and can be opened in July. Lacecap hydrangeas fit into the same category. The problems are most common with older varieties that have gotten too tall (some can be six to eight feet tall) and it seems like they should be pruned back to prevent them from crowding out other plants and overtaking the garden.

Resist the temptation to circumcise them now. If you need to prune, strategically cut the stems back just above the plump buds. The best time to hard prune hydrangeas is just before the end of July. This way they can flush out new growth and still have time to plant the buds for the following season. You will have to do without some of the August blossoms, but have enjoyed it for at least four weeks.

Hydrangeas respond wonderfully to a well-timed cut. Hydrangeas respond wonderfully to a well-timed cut. Photo by Minter Country Garden

Many of today’s new hydrangea varieties, such as the ‘Bloomin’ Easy ‘and’ Revolution ‘series, are much more compact and will re-bloom even if accidentally pruned early. ‘Revolution’ hydrangeas produce flowers that last much longer, and as they mature they are infused with a wonderful, green pattern.

Deciduous and evergreen azaleas are now in full bud, and although some may be a bit long-legged, let them bloom. When they’re done flowering and new growth begins, then prune. Because new growth will develop on their old wooden stems after they have bloomed, they can be pruned hard to regain their shape. New buds are planted in late spring and summer.

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The same applies to overgrown rhododendrons. After flowering and as soon as new growth sets in, they can be pruned quite heavily. Slowly but surely, new growth will emerge. It can take two years for them to fill in and set buds, but it’s worth the wait because you have a far more compact, nicer plant.

Selective stems of many summer flowering shrubs like lilacs can also be cut into arrangements and enjoyed indoors. Selective stems of many summer flowering shrubs like lilacs can also be cut into arrangements and enjoyed indoors. Photo by Minter Country Garden

Lilacs have now also set their buds and are ready to appear. Cut back all long-legged plants after flowering. Older French hybrids like rhododendrons may take two years to set, but again, it’s worth the wait when you have a much nicer plant. Compact Korean lilacs and the new Bloomerang series from Proven Winners, which bloom twice a year, can be pruned after each bloom and will still get buds the following year.

A variety of viburnums have buds blooming early, in the middle, and late in the season. One of my favorite viburnums, V. burkwoodii, with its highly fragrant pink to white flowers, has buds that can be opened in April, as do many of its cousins ​​like V. carlcephalum (the fragrant snowball). If you prune these viburnums now, you will be robbed of both their color and their perfume.

Other plant families like Spiraeas are confusing. Some of these species, such as S. arguta (Garland Spiraea), have their buds in bloom now in April, while late-flowering varieties such as S. vanhouttei (the Bridal Wreath Spiraea) bloom in late June and July. The early varieties bloom on old wooden stems while the late blooming varieties bloom on this year’s new growth. Here pruning flowering shrubs becomes a learned art.

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On the west coast, flowering shrubs offer a sequence of colors throughout the year, so we need to be careful when timing our pruning. The rules of observation, early and late flowering habits, and flowering on old or new growth apply, but nature always gives us some exceptions to keep us busy. The same precautions apply to all of our beautiful flowering trees such as ornamental cherries, plums, crab apples, and dogwood.

Proper pruning helps maintain the life and health of our trees and shrubs. However, it is timing that ensures we all enjoy our flowering shrubs to the full.

  1. Mixed bouquets are an excellent option for color and are inexpensive.

    Brian Minter: A flower gift this year, especially the other years, could mean more than you can imagine

  2. Lingonberries develop over time so you can harvest ripe berries while the young are still coming with you.

    Brian Minter: Plants that are high in antioxidants can thrive in our climate

  3. Armeria Dreameria.

    Brian Minter: Try some of these plants in your perennial areas to add color to your garden

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