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spring pruning with shears

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—Ready to get those gardening gloves dirty again? A break in the rainy weather may be the perfect time for pruning some of the plants in the flowerbed. However, a big chop to ornamental shrubs and trees could leave gardeners with naked plants for the remainder of the year.

To Prune or Not to Prune

Mallory Kelley, an Alabama Extension home grounds, gardens and home pests regional agent, said it is a good idea to think before bringing out the shaping shears or pole saw.

“It is important to think about the individual species of plants in the flowerbed before pruning,” Kelley said. “Pruning at an incorrect time will remove buds that are already in place for flowers.”

The May Rule

Kelley said the best guideline for pruning is to follow the May rule. If a plant blooms before May 1, prune it as soon as its flowers are spent. Early spring flowers—before May 1—are produced on last year’s “old wood” growth. Pruning during the winter would remove the current bloom buds.

For plants that bloom after May 1, pruning should occur when the plant is dormant during late fall or winter. Summer flowers produced after May 1 are on “new wood” growth. Kelley said pruning stimulates new growth and greater flower production for the following year.

Old Wood Ornamental Shrubs and Trees

Late-winter and early-spring blooming ornamentals should not be pruned until after the spring blooming cycle is complete. These plants bloom on “old wood”—or growth that occurred in the summer and fall of the previous year. Even a small pruning job would likely remove all of the buds, resulting in a bush without flowers.

Plants considered early-spring bloomers include:

  • forsythia
  • camellia
  • spirea
  • viburnum
  • azaleas

Kelley said these plants should be pruned immediately after flowering and definitely before June, as the plant will begin setting new buds for next year’s flowers in the late summer months.

New Wood Ornamental Shrubs and Trees

If a shrub or tree flowers during the summer or fall, it blooms on “new wood”—the growth that occurred throughout spring months. Kelley said these plants should be pruned once they go dormant in the winter and before leafing out in the spring.

“Fertilizing in the spring months will encourage new growth, which will create blooms in the late summer and fall,” Kelley said.

Summer and fall bloomers include:

  • crapemyrtle trees
  • gardenia
  • lilac chaste-tree
  • butterfly bush
  • clematis


“Hydrangeas can be tricky as there are so many different types available now,” Kelley said. “Pruning timing should be determined according to variety.”

Limelight varieties generally do not start blooming until around July 1. Kelley said the limelight varieties do not start blooming until July 1, so those should be allowed to go dormant. Gardeners can enjoy those dried blooms throughout the fall and early winter. Pruning should occur before spring growth begins.

Flowerbed Clean-Up

Fall and winter months are the best time to prune in the yard and flowerbed. This is a good time to prune plants to the ground and discard dry, spent plant material from ornamental grasses, annuals and perennials.

Kelley said bulbs may need some TLC in the spring.

“After spring bulbs stop blooming, it is okay to remove spent flowers,” she said. “However, be sure to leave foliage until it begins to turn brown and die down.”

The bulbs need this foliage as it is used for bulb growth, as well as the “food” the bulb stores up for its beautiful blooms the next spring.

Master Gardener Helpline

Does your garden have you stumped? Did a freeze burn your bulbs? Is there a deformed leaf on your azaleas? The Alabama Master Gardeners (MGs) are standing by, ready to answer questions on the Master Gardener Helpline at 1-877-ALA-GROW.

The toll-free helpline, in existence since 2006, connects callers with a knowledgeable team of MGs who can help answer all of your gardening questions. Armed with research and Alabama Cooperative Extension System information, these volunteers also contact specialists to find the answers you need.

The Alabama Master Gardeners program is used to expand the outreach mission of Extension. Volunteers from MG groups around the state work the phones answering questions—running the gamut from vegetable gardens to lawns and trees.

More Information

For more information on pruning techniques, making the right cuts and training plants into certain shapes, visit www.aces.edu.

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