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Home Grounds, Gardens and Home Pests > Home Grounds Blog > Posts > To Prune, or Not to Prune - That is the Question

It’s January, and still the question posed to me on a regular basis, more frequently than any other I hear, “Can I prune my XXX shrub?”  If I had a dollar for every time …. well you catch my drift. And quite honestly, yes you can prune your whatever plant now.  However, that begs the real issue – is this the best time to prune whatever it is you’re contemplating with loppers and gloves at the ready?  It’s cold outdoors, most of our gardening activities have been done for a while, and we’re itching to Do Something while the sun is shining!

So as 2015 begins, let me offer a few suggestions for shrubs you might want/need to prune.

page 2 - choice 4 - oakleaf hydrangea (aging to pink).JPG
It’s always OK, regardless of the season, to prune out the three D’s: dead, damaged, or diseased parts on the plant. Like human health, wounds (damage) can provide a “door” to an infection; dead tissue may require pruning, and diseased areas on a plant can’t protect the plant as well as healthy growth. Make sure the branch or limb is not merely dormant, which can look dead, by gently scratching your thumb nail on the bark.  If the cambium (layer beneath the bark) is green, that means the branch is alive and can be left on the tree or shrub.

The May rule of pruning suggests that: if the plant blooms before May 1, prune it AFTER the flowers fade.  These plants set flower buds the previous year, so if you're itchy pruning arm goes to work during fall or winter, most or all the flower buds will be pruned off and there won’t be many, if any, flowers in the spring.  The plant won’t die, and the following year should be OK after new growth sets new buds. The other part of this pruning rule of thumb: if the plant blooms May 1st or later, prune in late winter/early spring as these plants bloom on current year’s growth.  This can be frustrating for those who only remember “my XXX plant didn’t bloom this past summer,” but cannot remember when it was supposed to bloom in the first place. 

Hydrangeas are a ‘special’ group and have sent some gardeners into a frenzy of concern over their prized shrub’s failure to provide a flowering spectacle for their neighbors to enjoy. Part of the confusion comes from not being sure which  hydrangea is involved, and believe me it’s easy to be uncertain unless there’s a tag hanging somewhere on the plant, or you’ve kept a record of what was planted. Basically though, hydrangeas with big pink or blue flowers (H. macrophylla) and the oakleaf (H. quercifolia; photo above) both bloom on old wood so should be pruned right after they finish flowering. The other hydrangeas with white conical shaped blooms (H. paniculata) and the ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens) bloom on new wood (current year) and will do better if pruned in late winter/early spring. 

Relax. If a mistake is made and the shrub (you realize later) is pruned when it shouldn’t have been, make a note and adjust your timing, or instruct whoever is doing the work for you.  There’s always next year!
Written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.


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