February is the time for pruning many shrubs

nbrachey@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 1, 2013 

  • Garden Q&A Q. Of all the viburnums on the market – and I see a lot – which do you think is the best choice? Viburnums are very beautiful and useful plants. But if I had to choose just one, it would be the doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum tomentosum. This is a stunning plant, rising 8 to 12 feet with branches layered horizontally. The flowers, appearing in mid-spring after the flowering dogwoods, are beautiful, 2 to 4 inches wide and flat rather than round like many viburnums. Though ranked as a flowering shrub, I think most people would look on a mature one as a small, multitrunk tree. Nancy Brachey

Pruning shrubs at the right time is vexing. One week, they look fine and just the right size. Soon, they are reaching for the sky.

This is why we have February. It is the right time to tackle many pruning tasks. Just this week, I got a note from a woman, written in an urgent tone, about the state of her hollies, which have not been pruned for some years. Cut them back? Cut them down? Replace them? She was wondering which route to take.

Well, she could do any of these things. Replacing them with new shrubs would be nice and give a different look to her landscape. Cutting them down seems too drastic, though they are likely to recover at a slow pace.

Pruning is the best choice for evergreens such as hollies, cleyeras, nandinas, boxwoods and ligustrums. Done in February, it will bring them to the right size and shape before new growth emerges in spring. This new growth is the most vigorous and best-looking of the year.

It is a shame for people to prune in May and cut off this luscious new foliage.

The exceptions to this plan are spring-flowering shrubs, including azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, spiraea, forsythia, pieris and daphne. Anything you expect to bloom this spring should not be pruned until after the flowers fade.

Well-established evergreens, notably hollies and ligustrums, can take rather severe pruning if necessary. This is because they have excellent root systems that will encourage fresh growth. Drastic pruning back to large branches may make the plant take a couple of seasons to recover and leaf out, and that is not something many people want to live with.

A better option is to cut back by one-third now. Hopefully, this will bring the shrub close to the right height and width.

Look over your plant and decide how far back to cut it. Start with any wayward stems affecting the shape of the plant, and cut it back with pruning shears or long-handled lopping shears. As you continue thinning the plant, judge how it is looking. Avoid cutting the plants, especially hollies, into small round shapes, which are derisively called meatballs.

Some plants, such as nandinas, grow on long branches rising vertically and benefit from removal of the oldest stems cut close to the base of the plant, allowing space for fresh, new growth.

The small Japanese hollies with dense foliage benefit from a type of pruning called shearing when they are used as low edging plants around shrub beds. Use hedge clippers to create a smooth, even surface across the top and sides.

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