Let’s Talk About Pruning: Part 1

Two pruned Camellia sasanqua. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

There comes a time in every gardener’s life when the need to prune becomes very apparent. Now pruning, a topic that can elicit yawns, is a huge subject as every plant, whether it’s a perennial, shrub or tree, appears to require pruning at different times of the year. Approach the Internet in a friendly manner because it contains a lot of good information about specific plants.

If you deadhead flowers past their prime, tend to roses or occasionally find yourself snipping off an errant branch, you are already in the midst of garden pruning. Suddenly, after years of owning a nicely behaved garden, you realize that the garden is incredibly overgrown, causing you to search for the pruning shears frantically.

We prune for many reasons. Shaping is important as most of us do not wish to live in a forest – and plantings have been known to grow out of control. Camellias start out as neat and tidy inhabitants until one day, they resemble that 5’5” son you put to bed who comes down the next morning as a lanky 6’7” basketball player. As I keep on harping about, camellias, like children, come in a vast array of sizes and shapes so please do your research before you plant. It’s simply a waste of time to turn a large camellia into a small round ball. Neither you nor your camellia will appreciate your efforts.

We also prune to maintain flower production. Because I have tended to roses for over thirty years, I have become a talented deadheader. Contrary to belief, flowers do not produce flowers to please us; rather, this is one way many species continue their existence – if they produce fertile flowers. Should these flowers go to seed, our plants consider their job is done, halting their flower production. Because most of us garden for the flowers, we quickly become proficient deadheaders in an effort to prolong the bloom time.

Heavy seeders can be hard to keep up with, so I, who can verge on laziness in the garden, try to avoid them. Some I put up with – I’m thinking of hellebores in particular – but at a cost as I find it’s necessary to cut off their flowers before pregnancy overtakes them. I have one area of the garden, one that is easily accessible to the deer, that has been overwhelmed by the hellebore overpopulation. I do not want more such areas.

We prune in an effort to combat Mother Nature, who would love to see our manicured gardens revert back to a forest. It’s important to recognize that our gardens, no matter how often we extol their “natural” virtues, are quite unnatural. Instead, our gardens are manipulations of Mother Nature. Just as lawns are an aberrant of nature, so are our perennial borders, consisting of plants that would never have become acquainted with one another in the wild. Consequently, we must prune when our “natural” plants do their thing, becoming magically overgrown and unwieldly.

We also prune to allow more sun to visit the garden. Gardens get shadier as they age because plants, trees and shrubs sprout just as our children do. Suddenly it becomes imperative to remove those limbs that are blocking the sun or will be a danger in the next storm.

Consequently, there are many reasons why we must incessantly prune. Learning the correct time to prune is of equal importance – and here I have to again inject my incessant plea to research the plants you are installing in your garden. There’s lots of good information on the Internet, so use it.

Plants either bloom on old or new wood, with some blooming both on old and new wood. While most roses bloom on new wood, Lady Banks roses bloom on old wood, meaning that the future blooms form before the rose puts out new growth. To prune this rose at the wrong time is to eradicate the future flowers. The only time to prune it is right after the flowering is over.

Pruning can spur on new growth. Because roses never go sound asleep, the large pruning chore is in February, with intermittent pruning performed until early September when the pruning slackens off. Why do I stop pruning the roses while they’re still growing? This is because I want the new growth to harden off before the onset of cold weather.

If you want your garden to look as though it belongs to a nice family, you must occasionally resort to pruning. Look around the garden, examining the shrubs and trees in particular. Determine what is growing potentially out of control, research when is the optimal pruning time for that particular species and then whip out those pruning shears that you have thoughtfully cleaned and disinfected, something we all should do (and one I often sadly neglect to do).

Next week, I’ll continue the discussion on pruning.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at howyourgardengrows@icloud.com.
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