I got clip-happy on a sunny day this week, whacking on shrubs and trees to get ready for another summer of flowers and fruit, and rooting some of the cuttings.
Lots of folks prune willy-nilly whenever they urge, and for the most part the plants survive through the rejuvenative marvels of plant physiology. Worst that can happens is lost flowers or fruit. Or neighbors talking.
But this old clip-happy prune-aholic loves to prune. And, in spite of teaching the tree- and shrub-care arboriculture class at MSU, I often override my formal training to do things that would give palpitations to more staid horticulturists.
For example, I ignore self-appointed tastemakers who clutch their pearls over how people prune crape myrtles into “fists on sticks.” It’s called pollarding, and I know, from my travels in Japan and Europe, and even the headquarters of the American Horticulture Society, that it is a perfectly acceptable style. And as a plant scientist I understand it doesn’t harm plants. Really. Like it or not.
Just as I make up my bed every morning, and, in spite of having shoulder-length gray hair, regularly trim my beard into a neat goatee, I exert control in my otherwise naturalistic garden by tightly shearing my one boxwood into a big green meatball. And a yaupon holly tree is poodled into green balls atop long bare trunks.
They bring order to an otherwise chaotic scene. To keep new growth tight I shear these two plants in the late spring and again in late summer, and neaten them up after growth has stopped in the fall.
Lots of folks keep azaleas, spiraea and even repeat-flowering gardenias trimmed tightly, but there are a couple of tricks to keep them flowering well. Spring flower buds are formed in the late summer and fall, so other than neatening a few wayward stems in the autumn, it’s best to prune as hard as you want in the late spring or early summer — even down to a couple of feet tall — and leave them alone after July. Other plants that need pruning only after they flower and left alone past the end of include blueberries, once-flowering roses and berry-making nandinas, hollies and pyracantha.
This is sorta true with hydrangeas, figs, wisteria and muscadines as well. They flower on new growth, with an unusual twist: If you prune them really hard they will sprout back out, but unless you leave stubs of last year’s growth they won’t have flowers or fruit. So the first thing I do on those is remove really tall or cluttered stems, then on what is left I follow each branch from the tip ends down to where it started growing last spring, and leave stubs of that.
Like pruning summer roses, crapes and vitex, this is best done in winter — late December through mid-February; trusting the plants to sprout farther down, ignore buds near the tips that are starting to swell.
On blueberries I remove the tall stuff right after harvest, and in the spring I wait to see what flowers, then “tip” prune new nonflowering growth and suckers coming up from the ground, so it will bush out instead of shooting back up overhead. And, like azaleas and climbing roses, no pruning past the end of July or so.
As a bonus with winter-pruning my roses and figs, I stick pencil-size or smaller cuttings into good flowerbed soil between pansies and violas, and they root before beds need replanting with summer flowers.
More than out of an urge for neatness, pruning is a timely practice; keep it floriferous and fruitful.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]