Nancy Brachey

February is made for pruning certain shrubs

Based on conversations and mail, many people want to talk about pruning these days. They seem very keen to go after their overgrown or intruding shrubs, particularly since weather has been quite nice many afternoons.

The good thing is that February’s arrival on Sunday means late winter is here. Even if we have a blizzard or ice storm (not unheard of in February), pruning time for certain shrubs is upon us. The nice thing is you don’t have to rush out to do this during the Super Bowl halftime show. You can plan your work for the entire month.

The key is to get this important late-winter pruning done before new growth begins in March. I hate to say nothing is worse than pruning lush, new, perfect growth off an evergreen in April or May, but ... not much is worse.

Many types of landscape plants fit into this category, but not all. Always remember that azaleas, forsythia, rhododendrons, camellias, pieris, gardenias, spiraeas, and most other shrubs that bloom in spring and early summer should not be pruned until the flowers fade, or you risk removing flowering wood and buds. Daphne, a winter bloomer, may be pruned after the blooms fade in March, but it is such a slow-growing shrub that some people never touch it with a blade.

The ones to think about are such plants as hollies, laurels, boxwoods, ligustrums, cleyeras and nandinas – all important to the Piedmont landscape. These plants tend to benefit from pruning and shaping to a pleasing look that suits the space.

An urge to bring a plant down to the right size and shape is the usual reason people reach for pruning shears. This is a good reason. Mature plants with well-developed root systems respond well to pruning and typically produce vigorous new growth in spring. This new growth is the best-looking foliage of the year.

Nandina often becomes a leggy plant that doesn’t look so good. But cut well back, even by half, it should respond with new growth that will turn into a fluffy, dense plant that is quite attractive.

Normal, serious pruning means a plant is cut back by about one-third. Where more drastic downsizing is required, it helps to cut back by a third in February and to do the rest the following winter. This is especially helpful where cutting it back to the desired point all at once might leave the plant rather bare-looking for a time. However, even drastic pruning that takes off much of the foliage should not kill the plant; you will just have to wait longer for it to revive to its best appearance.

So be gentle. Let the one-third rule be your guide.