If you want more blooms and thicker foliage this summer, now is the time to break out the pruning shears and get whacking. March, with some exceptions, is the best time to prune summer and fall blooming specimens, and shape trees and shrubs. There are two basic pruning cuts, a heading cut and a thinning cut. A heading cut is made to encourage side growth and to discourage a stem from growing too long. It’s the cut you would make on boxwoods or roses to make them bushier. A thinning cut removes a smaller branch back to the branch collar or trunk, and is used to shape the appearance of a tree.
Pruning in late winter or early spring has several advantages. The plants are still dormant, so when they wake up they respond to the pruning as a signal to grow. In the summer the same cut would be treated like a wound and could actually slow growth. Since the leaves on deciduous trees haven’t formed yet, it’s also easier to see what you’re doing. The cooler weather also reduces the chances of the cuts getting infected.
Pruners are like cooks. Some follow recipes to the letter, and some jump in and wing it. If you are new to pruning, a great start is to identify a plant you want to work on, then pull up a video on pruning that species and have at it. If you want to go slow, start by removing cleary dead branches, and trim trees to your desired shape. When in doubt you can use a plant identification app on your phone to identify the species, or use a Google reverse image search. If you are unfamiliar with an image search, it’s my favorite Google feature. Simply go to your image in Google photos, and click on the “Lens” button on the bottom right. Google then searches for similar images the way it does a word search. Not sure if you have a mop head or oakleaf hydrangea? One photo and a few seconds later you’ll have the answer.
Plants that bloom on new growth benefit from pruning since an early cut encourages growth and gives the plant plenty of time to develop before the buds form. These include repeat blooming roses, butterfly bush, limelight and peegee hydrangeas, beautyberry, trumpet vine, buttonbush, ornamental honeysuckle, and summer blooming spirea.
Other plants that should be pruned this time of year include conifer trees and shrubs including arborvitae, hollies, yews and cypress. They can be pruned now, but the optimum time is when new growth just starts forming. You can tell since the spring growth will be a lighter color than the established growth. Prune to tame unruly branches and to generally shape the plant.
As a rule of thumb, plants that bloom in the spring should not be pruned until a week or two after their blooms fade. These include azaleas, rhododendron, forsythia, lilacs and viburnums. Camellias should be pruned after they bloom, but in Virginia the different varieties bloom from late fall into spring, so when in doubt, wait until they flower.
Finally, even if you only do a little pruning each year, buy a high end hand pruner like a Felco or a Fiskars. A sharp well made pruner is easier on your hands, and your plant, and will last you a lifetime. Another good investment is a lopper or long handled pruning shear. The longer handles give you leveraging power to cut through thicker branches.