Spring the best time to prune trees and shrubs

When is the best time to prune golden vicary privet and bridal wreath spirea? Is it OK to prune them now?

— Mary

To be honest, the “proper” time to prune isn’t all that important. There are some advantages and some disadvantages from one part of the year to another, but the differences are usually pretty minor. I suppose the only rule I’ll make is that you shouldn’t prune woody trees and shrubs in early- to mid-fall. Pruning is usually a growth stimulant and you don’t want to force new growth that time of year. You want your plants to be thinking about a long winter’s nap!

Golden vicary privet is often sheared and will perform beautifully with that type of pruning. You end up with a more formal look, and if that’s OK for you, you can shear it just about any time you’d like. I do like to give plants like this a light “haircut” early in the spring before it breaks bud. This gives me the chance to force the plant to grow a little more densely and keep it a bit more compact. Depending on the look you want or how big it can get, you may need to shear it another time or two or three during the growing season.

If you want a more natural look, the best thing to do is to just let the plant grow. They naturally grow into a dense, slightly upright habit with no corrective pruning. Keep in mind that bicary will get bigger than a lot of people expect. I’ve seen lots of older plants that are more than 8 feet tall.

I think that pruning the spring flowering shrubs like bridal wreath spirea (as well as lilac, forsythia and viburnums) is best done in the early spring before they break bud. Lots of pruning books will tell you to prune immediately after bloom so you can enjoy the flowers in the spring while giving the plant enough time to push out new growth in the summer to set flower buds for the following year. My experience is that the plant rarely puts out vigorous enough growth to really bloom well the following year.

Pruning early deprives me of the flowers on the stems I may have cut away (but I always try to leave lots of others alone to give some bloom), but the plant responds strongly and vigorously, which is really what I’m after in the first place. Having a few less flowers in the spring is a small price to pay for the long-term benefit from the pruning I’m giving it.

The thing you never want to do with a spring flowering shrub is to shear it back. Remember, these plants set their flower buds the prior year, and those buds are often at the tips of the branches. Shearing them back cuts off all the flower buds. Bridal wreath spirea does set some flower buds farther down the stem, but nonetheless, you’ll significantly reduce your flowers for the coming spring.

The way to prune these plants is not from the top down, but from the bottom up. These shrubs all have a suckering type growth habit — there is a clump of stems rising from the ground at the base. As these individual canes get older they tend to lose vigor and don’t grow as lushly or flower as profusely. Cutting off the oldest and largest canes down near the ground provides space and light for younger, more vigorous canes to grow, which keeps your plant “young” and flowering.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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