Let’s Talk About Pruning, Part 2

‘Lavender Prince’. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

There are many reasons to prune. If you have a small garden, pruning can magically enlarge it. If your garden looks rather sloppy, a good pruning is like getting a good haircut – we all feel better. Hedges, if they are going to look respectable, occasionally require a good pruning. As I mentioned last week, shaping and encouraging flowers are additional reasons to prune, along with removal of diseased limbs.

The problem can lie in this: knowing when and what to prune. Knowing whether a particular plant blooms on old or new wood (or both) is of great importance. As a general rule, I favor pruning just after flowering as this causes less potential destruction of future flowers. And, as with all generalities, there are exceptions to every rule.

Cotinus coggygria, aka as the smoke tree, blooms on wood that is over a year old so annual pruning will destroy the flowers – and the whole point of this tree is getting it to smoke, i.e., to bear its smoky blossoms. It recovers from pruning by producing larger leaves but I would submit that a large-leafed Cotinus minus the smoke is one lacking interest. Therefore, my suggestion is to let it grow until it becomes unwieldy; then give it a good pruning, cutting above some of the black buds on the stem. Regardless, a good pruning will sacrifice some of the future flowers for the following growing season.

If you have a winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, prune it right after it has flowered as it blooms on new wood that will grow in the fall. The same is true with all our camellias and some of our hydrangeas.

Hydrangeas can be tricky as some bloom on new wood and others bloom on old wood. It’s safer with most of the species to prune right after they have bloomed – remember, you can cut out diseased or untidy branches at any time. What you don’t want to do is to destroy the future flowers. H. macrophylla blooms on old wood whereas H. paniculata blooms on new wood. Consequently, you must prune the former no later than August whereas you are free to prune the latter even as late as February. The important thing is to know which species you have.

The red twig dogwoods that give us color during winter need to be pruned hard come early spring as it is the younger branches that carry the most color – and this, after all, is the reason it’s in the garden. To leave the older branches intact is to remove some of that winter color we enjoy. Cut right above the bud to encourage new sprouts.

Lavender profits from a good haircut in the early spring. Keep the lavender at full size throughout the winter and then cut it back. Likewise, be sure to cut back those ornamental grasses as it’s difficult to do once the new shoots appear.

Corylopsis (winter hazel). Photo by Kit Flynn.

One reason to prune is to create a shape – and I’m not talking about maintaining a manicured appearance by cutting off elongated stems. My winter hazel, Corylopsis of unknown species, is a lovely addition to the garden due to its manufactured shape. Winter hazel bears lovely yellow flowers in the middle of March that last for a mere two weeks at most. Then the small tree settles down to a status worthy of little description.

Sara Wilson, who helped me with the garden for its first fifteen years, was a masterful pruner; by cutting off whole limbs, she encouraged the remaining limbs to grow (happily) in a rather distorted shape, thereby creating year around interest. She thereby managed to create an interesting site rather than leaving it to a blah of nothingness for fifty weeks of the year.

She also planted one of my favorite camellias, ‘Lavender Prince’ in front of a small fence that hides various garden apparatuses. By pruning it so that it would spread sideways, it has never blocked the sidewalk. The camellia remains very healthy, causing traffic to stop when it’s in bloom. (Okay, this is a slight exaggeration as I live on a one-lane street containing five houses). It works because she didn’t limit the height or sideways growth of the camellia, allowing the camellia to spread its wings.

In my lexicon, the last reason to prune that I shall mention is to remove dead or diseased limbs. Last year, my twenty-year-old Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, aka Harry Lauder’s walking stick, developed a spate of dead leaves, a clear indication that a large limb had died. We took it off, leaving the remaining half in hopes it would survive. Was the large limb a victim of disease or had the heat of the summer led to its demise?

Upon googling “Harry Lauder’s walking stick disease,” it became apparent that the limb was suffering from a fungal disease, Eastern Filbert Blight. By cutting off the diseased limb (the proper thing to do in this case), hopefully we have either slowed the progress of this disease or even eradicated it if we managed to catch it early enough.

Yes, dear readers, here’s my harangue: Research your problem before grabbing those pruning shears. Sooner or later, every gardener has to prune – and that’s a generalization that has no exceptions.

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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