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Fall Pruning 101: DON'T!

Q. We just purchased a new home with somenice azalea bushes in the yard.  However they are too large forour taste, and we'd like to prune them back from their current six footheight to around four feet. Can you provide tips on how to do this?
            ---Gardening Challenged Carolyn in Delawarecounty PA

I have over-grown climbing roses andwould like to make them more managed looking.  How far back can Isafely cut the branches and when is the best time to do so?
                   ---Rebecca; ALSO in Delaware County

Last fall I ruthlessly pruned mylilac bushes. They now look awful. Can you please tell me what, ifanything, I can do to help make them look good again?
                    ---Maryin Wyndmoor,PA

Mike: I would like to know whichflowers or shrubs should be left standing through the winter and thencut back at the beginning of Spring, and which should be cut back nowand mulched over for the winter? Thank you,
                    --Lauriann in Germantown

A. Well, thank you all ladies—this is theperfect time of year for me to hold forth on the wonderful ‘gardencleanup’ people perform in the fall that keeps so many nurseries busyselling replacement plants in the Spring! You heard that right—inalmost every instance, your garden would be much happier if you justdisappeared for the next three months.

Carolyn with the new home with thebig azaleas—you’re the easiest. Don’t dare touch themnow! Take a close look at the branches—those nubby things you see areall flower buds. All of our fabulous Spring blooming plants—azaleas,rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, forsythia, dogwood and all of theflowering fruit trees—have already formed next year’s buds so they canbe ready to bloom right after winter. The only safe time to pruneSpring bloomers is in the couple of months right after their flowersfade.  

Prune those azaleas lightly rightafter they flower, removing a foot all around. Let them recover for amonth; then you can take off another six inches or so. It’s alwaysbetter to go slow, remove more than less, and to work in stages. Takeit from The Old Perfesser—duct tape and crazy glue will not put Humptytogether again after you take him on a trip down to Stumptown. Reducinga big plant’s size over several years is your best bet at achieving theshape you desire—and at not killing the plant, which is always a goodidea. Stop pruning and shaping Spring bloomers two months after theyfinish flowering

Don’t prune other woody plants likethose out-of–control climbing roses now either. Pruning stimulates newgrowth, and all plants want to go to sleep for the winter—even downSouth. And, if like over-caned Rebecca, you live where winter meansbitter cold, that tender new growth will freeze, killing it—and perhapsthe entire plant as well.  

The safest times to prune non-Springbloomers are in the dead of winter, when the plants are dormant, or inearly Spring when they show the first signs of new growth. Winterpruning is like carrying a four year old in asleep from the car—theyare SO sound out, they’ll never know what happened (even if you bangtheir little heads on the doorjamb a coupla times). In Spring, theplants are actively growing and have the strength to readily replacewhat you trim. Winter or Spring, never remove more than a third of anyplant over the course of a single season unless you’re SURE it’s theright thing to do. (An example of a plant that can really take a bigwhackin’ is butterfly bush (Buddelia), which is often cut back to theground in Spring to control its rampant growth.)

Oh, and don’t prune maples, birches,grapes, hardy kiwi and other “Chuck Wepner” plants in early Spring;these bleeders lose a lot of sap if they’re cut at that time ofyear—better to do them in the dead of winter or later in the Spring.

Mary: Your lilac-loping tale of woeillustrates the serious negative long-term effects Fall pruning canhave on the health of plants. The best thing you can do for thoselilacs right now is to shovel an inch of compostaround their base, apologize forthat assault last Fall and explain that you will now only prune themafter they finish blooming in the Spring.

 The only pruning of any kindthat should be done at this time of year is to remove dead or diseasedplant parts. Yes, I realize that the weather’s nice, we can see exactlywhat needs to be done, we finally have time on our hands, and we reallyWANT to prune now. This is Nature’s way of trying to teach us thebenefits of knowledge over passion. Or, as Garrison Keillor would say,“Well, you knew not to do it and know you know why”.

Garden cleanup? If it’s a herbaceousperennial (a plant that dies back to the ground every winter only toremerge in Spring) that doesn’t have big seed pods (like peonies, for instance), go ahead and clean up thedead stuff on top of the soil; these plants are long done collectingsolar energy for the season. Wait to apply an inch or two of mulch until AFTER the ground freezes hard forthe season. (You’re prevent winter heaving, not keeping the plantwarm.) If your ground doesn’t freeze, you don’t have to mulch. (Andpppfffttt on you; I’ll send you an ice storm in January.)

Leave plants that DO have big seedpods (like hostas) in place for winter interest, naturalbird feeding and surprise volunteers (“hey is that a hosta up in yourgutters?”). Leave ornamental grasses alone too. That plant mass on topinsulates the crown down in the soil, and in areas with snow, holdsthat wonderful insulating white stuff in place. Clear out the oldgrowth when you see new growth appear in the Spring.   

Upright, non-climbing roses can betricky. They often show lots of disease this time of year, but they’llsurvive winter much better if they aren’t pruned back till Spring. Ipick the worst looking leaves off mine by hand in the Fall, remove theworst looking canes mid-winter and then prune for real as soon as I seenew growth in the Spring.

You Bet Your Garden  ©2004 Mike McGrath

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