Pruning is one garden task that scares the All-Bran out of people. They’re afraid that if they prune something at the wrong time, they’ll ruin it, kill it, or look like a dolt. Relax, my children. The Grump is here to help.

If you remember this one rule, you’ll cut your pruning mistakes in half. (I’m so clever. It’s a gift.) The best time to prune a flowering tree, shrub, or vine is after it finishes blooming. So prune spring-flowering woody plants in late spring and early summer. Prune summer-flowering woody plants in late fall or winter. Ignore this rule and your plant probably won’t bloom the next year and you’ll get all pouty and irritated.

Because it’s late spring, lots of people want to know how to tell whether a plant is dead and should be pruned back. Here’s a simple test. Use Your fingernail to scratch the outer bark of the questionable tree or shrub. If you see green underneath, the plant’s still alive and may leaf out. If you don’t, the branch or trunk above the scratch is dead, so you might as well cut that part off. Prune back to the highest point where you can still find green.

OK, Grumpy could write a whole book covering every aspect of pruning, but I don’t have the space or time. Instead, let me give easy guidelines for when to prune some of our most popular woody plants.

 

 

Azaleas. Photo by Steve Bender.

Azalea (evergreen). Best time to prune: Immediately after flowering stops in spring; definitely by mid-June. Comments: Use hand pruners, not hedge trimmers. Cut back to a leaf or another branch.

Beautyberry. Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comment: Cut back hard. Blooms on new growth.

Butterfly bush: Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comment: Same care as for beautyberry.

Blackberry. Best time to prune: Spring. Comments: Cut off at the ground all canes that fruited last year. They’re dead. New fruiting canes will replace them.

Blueberry. Best times to prune: Winter or late spring after flowering. Comments: Remove dead branches. If fruit set is heavy, use hand pruners to remove some fruiting branches now and leave remainder well-spaced. Remaining berries will be larger and sweeter.

Boxwood. Best time to prune: Spring and summer. Comments: Can shear them into formal hedges if you want. Otherwise, use hand pruners to open up the plants and remove some inner branches, so the plants aren’t solid blobs. Improved air circulation reduces disease.

Chaste tree (Vitex). Best time to prune: Late winter and again in summer after first bloom. Comments: Chaste tree produces lots of twigs and needs regular pruning to keep from looking like a mess. Grumpy always cleans out the interior growth in winter, leaving the main trunks looking like a well-trained crepe myrtle. If you prune off the faded flowers in summer, you’ll usually get a second bloom.

 

Chaste tree. Photo by Steve Bender

Common camellia. Best time to prune: Late spring and early summer. Comment: To reduce size, use hand pruners to cut back branches to a leaf or bud.

Crepe myrtle. Best time to prune: Late winter and early spring. Comments: DO NOT CHOP IT DOWN INTO THICK, UGLY STUMPS! For step-by-step instruction on the correct way to prune, click here.

 

Grumpy's 'Miami' crepe myrtle. Photo by Steve Bender.

Dogwood. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Hardly ever needs pruning.

Elaeagnus. Best time to prune: Any time you have a chainsaw. Comment: Grumpy hates elaeagnus.

Fig. Best time to prune: Spring. Comment: Often damaged by cold winters. Wait until new growth starts in spring, then prune off all dead branches above it.

Flowering quince. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Watch out for thorns.

Forsythia. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comments: If you have an old, overgrown plant, renew it by cutting to the ground 1/3 of the oldest, woodiest trunks. Do this for 3 straight years. New, vigorous growth will grow rapidly.

 

Forsythia. Photo by Steve Bender.

Fruit trees. Best time to prune: Winter or late spring after flowering. Comments: Remove dead, rubbing, or crossing branches; also branches growing inward towards center of trees. Open up center of trees for better air and light penetration. Thinning fruiting branches results in bigger, juicier fruits on the remaining branches.

Gardenia. Best time to prune: Summer after flowers turn yellow and drop. Comment: Try rooting gardenia cuttings in water.

Holly (evergreen). Best time to prune: Any time except late summer. Comment: Grumpy likes to prune in December for the berries. He’s so festive and sentimental!

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle.’ Best time to prune: Winter. Comments: Blooms on new growth. Severe pruning results in larger, but fewer blooms.

Hydrangea French types (blue or pink flowers). Best time to prune: For once-blooming types like ‘Nikko Blue,’ prune in summer after blooms fade. Finish by mid-July. For rebloomers like ‘Endless Summer,’ prune in winter, spring, or summer. Comment: Prune as little as possible, primarily removing dead and spindly growth.

 

Photo Courtesy of Southern Living Plant Collection

Hydrangea ‘Limelight.’ Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comments: Treat same as ‘Annabelle.” Prune ‘Peegee’ and ‘Tardiva’ this way too.

Hydrangea, oakleaf. Best time to prune: Summer after flowers turn rose. Comments: Seldom needs pruning.

Indian hawthorn. Best time to prune: Late spring or summer after flowering. Comment: Doesn’t need much pruning. Prune or pinch new growth to control it.

Juniper. Best time to prune: Any time. Comment: Cut back to a wispy little shoot of foliage that parallels the original branch.

‘Knockout’ rose. Best time to prune: Winter, spring, summer. Comments: That old adage about pruning reblooming roses back to the first five-leaflet leaf is pure manure (yum!). ‘Knockout’ gets 5 feet tall and wide over time, so cut it back as far as you want in winter or early spring, but don’t cut below the graft union (notch on the trunk where the top meets the rootstock). Trim off old flowers throughout the summer to keep the shrub neat and bring on more blooms.

 

'Knockout' rose. Photo by Steve Bender.

Leyland cypress. Best time to prune: Winter, spring, summer. Comments: Will get gigantic if you let it go. To control height, use pole pruners to prune out tops, cutting back to the next branch lower down.

Lilac. Best time to prune: Late spring or early summer after flowering. Comment: Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Loropetalum. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: You can shear this shrub into formal hedge; let if form its natural, mounding shape; or remove lower branches to make a single-trunked small tree.

 

Loropetalum. Photo by Steve Bender.

Magnolia, saucer. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Needs very little pruning.

Magnolia, Southern. Best time to prune: Summer or winter. Comments: Shorten branches by using hand pruners or loppers to cut them back to another branch. Cut foliage for Christmas decorations.

Mockorange. Best time to prune: Late spring after flowering. Comment: Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Nandina. Best time to prune: Spring or summer. Comment: Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Oleander. Best time to prune: Summer after flowering. Comments: Cut back last year’s branches by half. Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

 

Oleander. Photo by Steve Bender.

Photinia (redtip). Best time to prune: See recommendations for elaeagnus.

Pittosporum: Best time to prune: Just about any time. Comment: Needs little pruning.

Pomegranate. Best time to prune: Summer after flowering. Comment: Prune to produce well-spaced branches that don’t cross or rub.

Privet. Best time to prune: See recommendations for elaeagnus.

Pyracantha. Best time to prune: Summer. Comments: Keep this baby pruned or it’ll eat your house. Prune back to a crotch or another branch. Don’t leave stubs — they die. Wear leather gloves unless you enjoy anemia.

Rhododendron. Best time to prune: Late spring or early summer after flowering. Comment: Shorten branches by cutting back to another branch.

 

Rhododendron. Photo by Steve Bender.

Rosemary. Best time to prune: Spring or summer. Comment: Shorten branches to control growth.

Rose-of-Sharon. Best time to prune: Winter or early spring. Comments: Remove dead, spindly, crossing, and rubbing branches.

Spirea, spring-blooming. Best time to prune: Late spring after blooming. Comment: Renew old shrubs using same technique as for forsythia.

Spirea, summer-blooming. Best time to prune: Winter and early spring. Comment: Shorten branches to 4-5 buds.

Viburnum. Best time to prune: Late spring or summer. Comments: Remove spindly, crossing, or rubbing branches. Renew old bushes using same technique as for forsythia.

Wisteria. Best time to prune: Late winter and summer. Comments: For best bloom, cut back spur-like side shoots that grow from main canes to 5-6 buds in late winter. Pinch out tips of runners throughout the summer to control growth. Remove basal suckers whenever they appear.

 

Wisteria. Photo by Steve Bender.

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