Nancy Brachey

After flowering, prune azaleas and other shrubs

Once their gorgeous flowers fade, you can prune azaleas if necessary for height and shape
Once their gorgeous flowers fade, you can prune azaleas if necessary for height and shape Observer file photo

We have reached a time some of you have been yearning for since last year. As the flowers of most azaleas begin to fade from springtime glory, you can get out the pruning shears and prepare for action.

Vigorous plants that they are, azaleas tend to grow faster than you thought and may fill up a space much faster than expected.

Not only azaleas, but other spring-flowering shrubs such as spireas, forsythia and camellias, can be pruned and shaped for a look that suits their space. Having reached a good size, they possess mature root systems and should respond to pruning with vigorous new growth.

However, the approach you take will vary with the type of plant. Plants that produce long, arching stems such as forsythia and most spireas, should be pruned by thinning when the shrub becomes thick and ungraceful. That means you select the oldest stems and cut them off just above the base of the plant.

Do not prune them by cutting off the tips of every stem. This will lead to a roundish, unnatural look and destroy the beauty of these plants created by their graceful, arching stems.

Azaleas, which produce branches with foliage up and down their stems, require a different approach, but care is required to produce the best effect. They can be trimmed back by inches, even by feet, to reach the desired size.

But don’t just whack. Approach the plant with a plan for its new size. Look over the main branches for a point where new growth is emerging, or about to emerge. If this is the right height, cut the stem back to just above it. Use this new height as a guide for pruning other stems. But you don’t have to be mathematically precise and make every branch even. Get close, but not exact.

While most people approach azalea pruning with modest ambitions, others are keen to do more vigorous cutting back. This can yield surprisingly good results, but not quickly. I had major renovation work done to the outside of my house some years ago.

The azaleas and camellias had to be cut back, some of them drastically, meaning to the ground. I thought they were goners for sure, but slowly new growth began to emerge and over time they became fully formed nice shrubs that bloomed.

It takes patience to live with this slow comeback, but if gardening teaches you anything, it should be patience.

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. How soon can we get rid of the foliage of daffodils that bloomed in March?

A. When the leaves turn yellow, they can be cut off. Or wait until they turn brown and wither and they are pretty easy to rake up. This must be the most often-asked question I get in spring.

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