Gardening With What You Have

Prune Now!

christine froehlich 04/03/2016 Comments

Prune Now!



The beginning of Spring is sometimes too wet to start cleaning up the garden, but early spring is a perfect time to prune flowering shrubs. 


Yeah, I know - you shouldn’t touch them before they bloom. But what if you're like me? I always mean to prune lilacs, spireas, viburnums and such right after they flower, like the rules say.  My intentions are good, but the reality is that when it's time to do it, other more pressing garden chores get in the way. 


 I’ve neglected some of the shrubs in my border garden because pruning them without being poked in the eye and stomping on the neighboring shrubs and perennials is almost impossible.  As a result, my favorite lilacs are full of dead wood and sprouts, suckers are choking the viburnum and my smokebush is leggy and way too big.

twiggy stufflilac


As I surveyed these poor looking specimens, guilt and shame overcame my desire for future flowers.


I got out my pruning equipment and started in on the lilac. It's a lot easier to deal with all that twiggy growth if you cut off the smaller shoots crowding the biggest trunks first. Once I did that, there was more room to get into the shrub and remove the dead branches. I opened it up even more by pruning the side shoots that were growing into the middle of the shrub. I took down the tallest growth at the top and the sides to reduce its size.

          pruning at the base    

cleaned up


Looks much better doesn't it?  Even though, I sacrificed some of the flowers, it’s worth it because next year, I'll have a healthier and more attractive plant that will give me better blooms.




There are many rules about what to prune and when to do it. But the bottom line is that it has to be done eventually, and it's much easier in late winter or early spring when you can see the structure of the shrub. I figure the worst that can happen is that you'll forgo the flowers. The best is that you’ll have a healthier, more attractive shrub that will bloom better the following year.


You can prune just about any deciduous flowering shrub in spring. The method I just described can be used on shrubs such as Deutzia, Lilac, Viburnum and Cotinus (Smoke Bush).

If you want to reduce the size, start at the top and take off the longest branches. Do the same with the side growth. Prune off  little at a time and try to keep it evenly shaped. Make your cuts at the node-the juncture of where the main trunk and the side shoots meet. 



Note: Healthy lilacs and viburnums respond well to hard pruning. If they’re leggy or full of dead wood, I cut them to the ground. They sprout up again quickly and you can start all over again with brand new growth.


Shrubs such as Red Twig Dogwood, Buddleia, Caryopteris and Clethra produce healthier foliage and better blossoms if you cut them back too:


Cut back by at least one half or even more if the plant has gotten too large. This will also make it easier to reach in to get rid of dead wood. No artistic pruning is required here, you can shape them with your pruning shears or hedge clippers. 


You can prune dwarf spireas in the spring too. They bloom on new growth so you won't lose any flowers. I reduce their size by at least half and round them out with hedge clippers. 


This year, my mantra is to prune and feed more. Top dressing with compost is next -stay tuned.



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