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Have your gardenias gone to town? Then it’s time for a bit of summer pruning

Prune gardenias right after flowering, and do it lightly.
Prune gardenias right after flowering, and do it lightly. Charlotte Observer file photo

Thanks to regular rainfall through much of the spring and early summer, many people have seen robust growth on their ornamental shrubs. This is a wonderful sight, especially for those who start with small plants and dream of having a showy specimen in their lifetime.

But other gardeners are fretting that things have gotten out of hand and they desire to do a little pruning.

It seems, from my correspondence, that hydrangeas and gardenias have really gone to town, flourishing in a surprising manner.

If the plant – an azalea, hydrangea or whatever – has reached its mature size, a little pruning may be all that is needed to satisfy your eye and the space it occupies. For flowering shrubs that bloom early – late winter to early summer – and on wood that developed last year, the time for this work is now. This includes azaleas, camellias and mophead hydrangeas, which are three of the most popular flowering shrubs for Piedmont landscapes.

By a little pruning, I mean the removal or cutting back of wayward stems that interfere with the pleasing, overall shape of the plant. This can be dealt with quickly and easily to make a better-looking plant. When a plant seems thin and lacks the desired density, pruning of the stem tips can encourage fresh growth below and lead to a denser look.

Some plants may need more radical treatment. They may have grown not only wayward but leggy, presenting an odd shape that looks unnatural for the type of plant. Greenery is sparse on the lower stems and the top erupts like a fountain instead of the dense, oval shape you want. In this case, rather severe pruning can produce good results, but not overnight.

A well-established plant that is cut back by a third or so should show remarkable rejuvenation and the growing season will continue for many weeks yet. This is because it has a well-developed root system. I have seen plants, including camellias, azaleas and hydrangeas, cut back to nearly ground level because of work being done to a house. They all came back and eventually made good-looking shrubs. But it took several years, so this is not something to do casually.

Besides light pruning of wayward stems and major pruning of badly shaped ones, there are plants that are simply too big for the space they occupy. They require annual pruning to keep stems and leaves from blocking windows or encroaching on driveways and sidewalks.

In this case, pruning is not your answer. Either move or replace the plant.

Moving is an option if the plant has sentimental value that tugs at your heart. However, moving a shrub is best done in the dormant season starting in mid-autumn. Depending on its size, it may require significant pruning by one-third to make it manageable. A larger plant may require a landscaper with the equipment to dig the root ball and transport the plant to its new home.

If the plant does not possess great sentimental value, you may consider removing and replacing it with something smaller that will reach a mature size in keeping with the allotted space. And the mature size is not a secret. The identifying tags on plants sold in garden centers almost always include the mature height and width. This is the best guide to putting a plant in the right place where it can grow without a lot of pruning that inhibits its natural beauty.

Ask Nancy

Q. I was recently given pass-along crocosmia plants: small bulbs with lots of greenery attached, very healthy and lush. When I plant them, I’m assuming I should not cut off the greenery but plant as they are now. I’ve looked online unsuccessfully. The only instructions seem to be for bulbs alone.

A. They are sold as bedding plant. Just set them out like you would any perennial with stems and leaves. Do not cut off any greenery. They should do fine for you in their new home. I love their vertical shape and the unusual flowers they produce in summer.

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