Let’s be honest: pruning can be a little intimidating. Lopping off parts of a tree or shrub seems to go against the nurturing instinct that led you to cultivate it in the first place, and the arcane rules regarding what to cut when may seem prohibitively complicated.
The fact remains, however, that pruning is worth shoving all that aside and picking up your sharpest pair of shears. Removing densely-packed limbs allows more sunlight to reach each leaf, which means more energy for your plant, and fewer dank spots favored by pests. Pruning also encourages flowering and fresh, new growth, while ensuring a shapely shrub that makes your property look groomed and attractive.
There are two important pruning methods you should know about for early spring: the renewal method and the rejuvenation method. These techniques are generally used for spring-blooming and summer-blooming trees and shrubs, respectively.
The Renewal Pruning Method
If a shrub flowers in your area before June 15, it is considered early-blooming. Early-blooming shrubs form their buds the previous summer and fall; if you prune them late summer on, you will lose next year’s blossoms. Therefore, it’s best to trim them back just after their blooms have dropped.
Prune the tallest of cane-like branches back to the earth, and shape the remaining branches so that no two rub together. If you are new to shaping, it’s a good idea to indicate where you intend to cut branches by tying them off or marking them with chalk, which can help keep your pruning length consistent and your shrub symmetrical. Remember to always cut back to a fork, and to prune so that the remaining branch faces outward; this encourages the plant to grow in the direction that will net its leaves the most light and keep the shrub a rounded, pleasing shape. You should never cut back more than 1/3 of the plant’s growth in any given year.
If you need to thin a spring bloomer with cane-like branches, such as forsythia, feel free to cut stray branches off at the ground in early spring, before they blossom.
Other spring bloomers include lilac, early dogwoods, azalea, viburnum, and flowering apricot, plum, apple, and cherry.
Potentilla spp. are the exception to the rule: though it is a summer-blooming plant, it is best to prune it using the renewal method in early spring. Pruning at other times can cause dieback and sun-scald.
The Rejuvenation Pruning Method
The rejuvenation method can make novice gardeners cringe, since it entails cutting the plant back to mere inches above the soil (4 to 12 inches). However, it is a necessary evil if your shrub’s branches have grown tangled together with dead space at its heart. You may have to use this method on a few of your shrubs if you have not pruned several years in a row.
Rejuvenation is generally used for plants that blossom after June 15, such as Anthony Waterer spirea, honeysuckle, beautybush, cane-growth viburnums, mock orange, quince, snowberry, and privet. However, you can use the rejuvenation method on early-blooming plants with the understanding that you are sacrificing your bloom for that year in order to ensure better growth the next.
Any trees or shrubs that blossom later than June 15 can be pruned back in February or March, whether you intend to use the rejuvenation method or not. The growth that holds the blossom develops in the spring in these plants, so cutting them back in late winter or early spring is ideal.
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