Work from bottom up when pruning your shrubs

We have a red twig dogwood bush in our front yard that we would like to know if we can cut back now because it is taking over and becoming too big. Love the bush, but need it trimmed back a lot. It does have some little buds showing.

— Anne

Most people just shear the plant back to keep in within bounds, but in the long term that’s not the best way to prune these guys. The best way to prune shrubs like this is not from the top down but from the bottom up.

Like many spring flowering shrubs (like lilac, forsythia, and snowballs) red twig dogwood has a suckering type growth habit. That is, there is a grouping of many stems coming up out of the ground together at the base of the plant. As these individual canes get older, they tend to lose vigor and don’t grow as lushly or flower as profusely (or in the case of your red twig dogwood, they lose that bright red color and turn a drab gray). 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 fresh and vigorous.

From the pictures you sent, I can see it’s been let go for a number of years and you need to get down and start cutting off those bigger stems.

In addition, there are a number of dead stems scattered through the plant. They’re easy to spot — they’re the ones that are gray instead of that burgundy red of the others. Actually, that’s usually the first thing I’ll recommend to people when they start pruning — cut out the dead stuff first. Doing that tends to clear up the structure of the plant so you can see what’s going on and make better choices of which stems to cut off.

Then, it’s time to cut some of the biggest stems as close to the ground as you can. I often use a pruning saw since some of the stems can be a bit big to cut with pruning shears or even loppers. I like to space and scatter around the plant the stems I’m cutting off so that I’m preserving as much balance and symmetry to the plant as I can.

Once I’ve cut out what I think needs going, then you can do some limited, judicious pruning back at the top of the plant to improve its look.

The one rule of thumb I try to adhere to is that I don’t want to cut off more than one third of the live growth at one time. Doing more than that is stressful to the plant and you run the risk of losing it.

If you need to take off more than that one third, you’re best off to be patient and start the process this year and continue it next spring. As for when to do this, I think the best time to prune is right now in early spring before they break bud.


I am looking for a good ground cover for the garden (sun/partial shade), to go in between flagstone path. Irish moss has the look I want. Any suggestions on the moss or another good ground cover for this climate?

— Sheryl

Irish moss is great between stepping stones, but it likes shade. If the area gets shade much of the afternoon, it should work fine. I’ve seen Irish moss growing in the sun, but the more sun it gets, the “iffier” it becomes. It may survive, but it won’t thrive. Other possibilities are wooly thyme, creeping potentilla and some of the creeping Veronicas.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, 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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