What Should I Be Pruning in Late Winter?

— Written By

Now is the time to dust off your pruners and start those pruning chores. Late winter is the time many plants in the landscape are pruned before new growth begins in the spring. February is usually the best month to complete these pruning chores.

When it comes to what you can prune in February, here is a list of plants: blueberries, crape myrtles, fruit trees, muscadine grapes, ornamental grasses, roses and summer-flowering shrubs. Summer-flowering shrubs would include ones like abelia, butterfly bush, hibiscus, lantana, ligustrum, nandina, photinia and waxmyrtles. The main group of plants you do not want to prune in late winter would be the spring-flowering shrubs. Since they have already set this year’s flower buds, pruning now would remove their spring show of blooms. Spring-flowering shrubs and trees to NOT prune now would include: azalea, dogwood, forsythia, magnolia, quince and viburnum. Instead prune these spring-blooming plants after they finish flowering in the spring.

Pruning techniques for these plants can vary some, so you have to remember what purpose the plant serves in order to know how to prune it. For landscape plants like crape myrtles, ornamental grasses, roses, and summer-flowering shrubs their purpose is to provide flowers and beauty to the landscape. So when pruning you want to maintain an attractive shape and to have a nice display of flowers.

For blueberries, fruit trees and grapevines the pruning techniques differ some in that you are really training the plant to result in good fruit production. You want a plant that has a strong main trunk or base in order to support the plant and fruit. Branches should be spaced out to allow the plant to intercept as much sunlight as possible. Full sunlight is needed for good fruit production.

As when pruning any plant, you should always first start with removing the three D’s:  dead, dying, and diseased branches. Next eliminate any crossing branches, even if the branches are not yet touching each other. Crossing branches can eventually touch each other which will allow for the branches to rub and open wounds that can allow access for disease and insects into the tree. Remove branches that are growing toward the center of the tree canopy or growing downward, instead of upward and outward from the tree’s center.

There are three basic pruning techniques for shrubs: 1) heading back is used to control the size of the bush. Individual branches are shortened. 2) Thinning means removing an entire branch back to the main trunk or ground. It is used to “open up” bushes that have grown too thick. 3) Shearing is used to clip foundation shrubs such as hollies and boxwoods.

When pruning, there are a few pruning tools which all home gardeners should have. A pair of hand pruners is used for small branches 1” or less in diameter. There are two types of hand pruners. The by-pass hand pruners allow you to make very close cuts and would be used to majority of hand pruning cuts. The anvil-style hand pruners are used in a few cases where one would need to cut succulent or tender growth. A second pruning tool needed would be a pair of loppers with the ability to cut 1 to 2” branches. Lastly, a pruning saw or bow saw can be used for branches larger than 2” in diameter.

When pruning a general rule of thumb is the “one-third” rule. You want to try not to take out more than one-third of a plant at a time. Taking out more can stress the plant and cause more harm than good. However, there are some broadleaf shrubs that can benefit from a severe pruning, or rejuvenation pruning, every few years when they get overgrown. Plants that can respond to a severe pruning every few years includes hollies, Photinia, Ligustrum, Osmanthus, camellia, Waxmyrtle, Rose of Sharon, Hydrangea and Spiraea. If you decide one of these types of shrubs needs a severe pruning, keep in mind that if the shrub is healthy is should do well producing new growth but if the shrub is already unhealthy a severe pruning can only stress the plant more and it will struggle to recover.

Pruning can be a big chore in late winter, however, it can be very beneficial in improving the aesthetics of the plant while also improving flower and/or fruit production along with keeping the plant healthy.

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Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County. Horticulture program information can be found at http://wayne.ces.ncsu.edu/. Forward any questions you would like answered from this week’s column to Jessica.Strickland@waynegov.com.

 Upcoming Wayne County Extension Gardening Programs

  • Pruning Trees & Shrubs Workshop – Friday, February 24th from 9 a.m. to noon at the Wayne County Extension Office at 208 W. Chestnut Street, Goldsboro. This free workshop will cover when and how to prune various trees and shrubs in your landscape. The workshop will be presented by Jessica Strickland, Wayne County Horticulture Extension Agent. Call the Wayne County Extension Office at 919-731-1520 to register for this workshop.
  • Listen to our new gardening radio show “What’s Growing with Jessica Strickland” on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. The show airs on WFMC 105.7FM & 730 a.m.