Late Winter PRUNING

Diggin’ in the Dirt – 2021

          Signature Gardens 
                              The signature of God is written in flowers


Generally speaking, late-January through February is the ideal time for pruning most shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses; but some plants are pruned later in the spring.  So before you go Edward Scissorhands on your landscape, let's go over some specifics.

The reason mid-February is the best time for major pruning is because our average last freeze date is mid-March (March 17).    Three to four weeks prior to that time is the best time for pruning.   Your plants have been storing energy all winter long.  Pruning will stimulate new growth, so by the time the new growth comes, chances are the deep freezes will be a distant memory.    Prune too early, and new growth could get burned by a late freeze.

Late winter (January/February) is also a good time to prune trees, if needed.  Just a note about oak trees (live oak or red oak), trim them very soon, if needed.  To prevent the spread of oak wilt disease, the best time to prune oaks is in the winter months, preferably before February 15.  The nitidulid beetle is not as active during colder months.

In the case of most shrubs, try not to just shear them, but instead selectively prune at intersecting branches toward the interior of the shrub to keep shrubs full and compact.  If you only shear the tops of the shrubs, that is where the new growth will come, leaving the interior and lower branches bare.  

NOTE:    Ideally, we want to plant the "right plant" in the "right place."   Choose shrubs based on the mature size of the shrub and the available bed space.   Applying the "right plant/right place" philosophy to your plant choices will keep your pruning chores to a minimum each year.  If we try to force large shrubs into small spaces by pruning them heavily every year (or month),  it just adds unnecessary work and expense, and eventually the plant's health will decline.    Drastic restorative pruning can be done on shrubs that have gotten very overgrown or have been poorly pruned in the past, but it's best if this is only done for a year or two to get the plants back in shape.     

Here are some tips on pruning specific types of shrubs, ornamental grasses, roses, and groundcovers:


Hollies  (e.g., Yaupon, Burford, Carissa) can take pretty drastic pruning, by 1/3 to 1/2 of the plant.   Ideally, if they are sited in the correct space for mature growth, you will not need to prune this severely every year.   However, if they have gotten overgrown or have been poorly pruned in the past, don't be afraid to do this drastic restorative pruning.  Within a month, they will be lush with new growth.   

Burford Hollies:  Cut selectively with hand pruners to maintain natural shape.   Using mechanical hedge trimmers on larger leaved hollies tears and shreds the leaves.
Dwarf Yaupon Hollies do respond well to shearing, but when pruning this shrub, aim for a "dome" shape instead of a "meatball."  Shape the top of the shrub, but do not cut in at the bottom.  The end result is that the shrub is wider than it is tall.

Nandinas:  All varieties of Nandinas are always pruned at the bottom.  Never prune the sides or tops.  Take the tallest canes, follow them down to the ground, and prune them.  New growth will come out at the point of pruning, keeping the plant full and compact.  Try not to prune more than one-third of the shrub at once. 
Improperly pruned.  Do not shear Nandinas into squares 
Correctly pruned 'Gulfstream' nandinas - 13 1/2 years old
Abelia:    Abelias have a naturally weeping shape and do not look good when pruned into a square or ball.  Smaller varieties of Abelia (such as 'Rose Creek' or 'Kaleidoscope') can be sheared into a dome shape, but ideally allow them to grow in their natural form. All varieties of Abelia tend to put off long straight shoots that can be pruned off, if desired.   Prune those longest stems close to the ground to keep a more tidy appearance.  
Prune long, straight shoots close to ground
Larger varieties (such as 'Edward Goucher' or 'Glossy') that are very overgrown or have been poorly shaped in the past can be pruned down to about 18 inches.  They will be just sticks at that point, but they will regrow into their natural weeping shape and will not need this drastic pruning again, provided their mature size fits the bed space.  If the mature size is too large for the bed space, replace with a smaller variety of Abelia. 
'Sherwood' Abelia - allow to grow in natural weeping shape
                                                                        *   *   *

As I mentioned before, some plants are pruned later in the spring.  Spring-blooming shrubs produce flower buds for the spring during the previous autumn, so you will need to wait until after  you enjoy the spring blooms to do any pruning.  If you prune in February, you will cut off all the blooms.  Indian Hawthorn, Viburnum, Forsythia, Flowering Quince, Loropetalum, and Azalea fall into this category.     They will be ready for pruning probably about April.

Hydrangeas (macrophylla, quercifolia) bloom on old growth (last year’s growth), so pruning them now will sacrifice blooms.  If you need to prune them, do so right after they finish blooming.  Selectively prune by cutting the tallest stems close to the ground.   Dead wood can be cut out at any time (scratch the stems first to make sure they are dead).      
Hydrangea macrophylla -
be sure to look for buds or green tissue before pruning dead wood

Spiraeas:  Prune Bridal Wreath Spiraea after it blooms, cutting tallest old stems close to ground only if needed.  It does not need to be pruned at all; it has a lovely weeping shape.  Anthony Waterer Spiraea can be pruned down to the ground in mid-February to keep it from becoming woody.  Lime/Gold Mound Spiraeas stay so small that they really only need a few-inch tidy-up prune, if anything at all.    
Miscanthus Sinensis 'Adagio'
Cut Miscanthus and Fountain grasses down to about 3 inches.    It is not necessary to cut Mexican Feathergrass; just give it a “haircut” and rake out the old grass stems.  Cut Muhly grasses down to about a foot tall and rake out old stems.

ROSES:  Prune shrub roses back by about half their size in mid-February.  First, prune out all dead wood and any stems pointing toward the center of the rose.  What you want left is a clean center with all stems fanning outward.  Then follow the stems down until you find a leaf node (bud of new growth) pointing to the outside of the rose (not back toward the center) and prune it at a 45-degree angle right above that outward facing leaf node. 

clean center, all stems fanning outward
angled cut above outward facing leaf node

Prune carpet (drift) roses back by two-thirds.   Prune climbing roses selectively, just pruning stems that have gotten out of hand, just tidy it up a bit.  Prune spring bloomers AFTER they bloom.    

For info on the best roses for our area, visit this website:  

As your roses start to put on new growth this spring, be on the lookout for Rose Rosette Disease.  Symptoms of RRD present as red, distorted new growth (known as "witches' broom") on long, thick, extremely thorny stems.  The disease is transmitted by a microscopic eriophyid mite and is spread to other roses as the mite travels on wind currents.  At this point in time there is no effective control of the disease, and it is recommended that any roses with RRD be completely removed and destroyed.   Click here to learn more.

GROUNDCOVERS:  Asian Jasmine, Purple Wintercreeper, and Mondograss -- mow or weed-eat down to 3-4 inches.     Liriope -- weed-eat or cut down to approximately 2 inches.   New growth will emerge in March, so it is critical that old growth is cut before new growth starts so new growth is not damaged.  Cutting all the old growth will remove any damaged leaves, and the new growth gives liriope a much cleaner appearance.

TREES:  If the need arises to prune a large branch from a tree, follow the 3-step pruning method.   Cut 1:  Undercut the branch (halfway through) several inches away from the branch collar.   Cut 2:  Overcut the branch on the outside of Cut 1 to completely remove the branch and weight.  Cut 3:  Cut close to, but on the outside of, the branch collar.    See diagram below:

Crape Myrtles:  Please do not prune the tops of crape myrtles - a/k/a "Crape Murder."  Prune only dead or crossing branches and any suckers that have grown at the bottom.   If your crape myrtle does not leaf out well this spring because of previous winter freeze damage or if it is disfigured from past "crape murder," cut the tree TO THE GROUND and let it regrow.  It will quickly send up new shoots, and at that point you can pick the strongest stems to become the new tree.   


If you are unsure whether a branch is dead or alive, make a small scratch in the bark.   If it is green under the bark, it is alive.  If it is tan or gray under the bark, it is dead and can be pruned off.
Dead (left/tan)  -  Live (right/green)

PERENNIALS:     Some perennials can be pruned after freezes in the fall (see tips in my Is it Dead or Dormant post or in my Fall Newsletter).   If you did not prune your perennials last fall, here are a few specifics to get them ready for spring.  

·         Salvia greggii or Salvia microphylla (Hot Lips) – cut down to about 6 to 12 inches.  Encourages more compact/full growth and more blooms.  

 ·         Shrubby Pink Skullcap - if there is not a lot of freeze damage, just give plant a haircut, taking off only a couple inches to make it look neater.   If freeze damage is severe, cut to ground.

 ·          Blackfoot Daisy, Calylophus – these plants do not respond well to severe pruning.  Give them a "haircut" now, but wait till new growth appears to determine if you need to cut back more.  Blackfoot Daisy may need to be replaced; it can be cold tender.   

 ·         Purple Coneflower, Black-Eyed Susans, Fall Aster, Mealycup Sage, Mexican Mint Marigold, Hardy Hibiscus, Mexican Bush Sage, Summer Phlox, Turk’s Cap, Loosestrife, Zexmenia, Catmint – cut to the ground.

 ·         Lantana – Cut back to about 3 to 6 inches.  It is slow to come out in the spring, so don’t give up on it.

·         Russian Sage – You can cut it back to the ground, but I like to cut back to about a foot tall for stronger stems to support the blooms.  

 ·         Creeping Phlox, Dianthus, Lamb's Ear - cut away any browned foliage

·         Four-Nerve Daisy - cut away old spent blooms and any browned foliage.

·         Liriope (variegated or green "monkey grass") – cut back to about 1-2 inches.

·         Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) and American Beautyberry - Cut back to about 12 to 18 inches.

·         ‘Powis Castle’ Artemisia – cut back to about 6 inches.

·         ‘Katie’s’ Ruellia (Dwarf Mexican Petunia) – cut to ground (or on a dry day, just stomp on the clump to break off the brown stems)

 ·         Ferns – Wood Ferns and Japanese Painted Ferns - cut to the ground.  
Evergreen Holly Ferns and Autumn Ferns – cut only browned foliage

 ·        Cast Iron Plant - cut tattered or browned leaves to the ground.  It is slow to grow back; be patient.

·         Ligularia/Farfugium (Leopard Plant) - cut away any browned leaves.  

·         Hellebores (Lenten Rose) - cut away any browned leaves, but be careful to avoid cutting emerging blooms.  

·         Columbine - only cut away dry, browned foliage.  It should be sending up new growth right now; be careful to avoid cutting new foliage.

QUESTIONS?    Please e-mail me at or post questions on my Signature Gardens Facebook page.   

And remember…a day without dirt under your nails is like a day without sunshine  

Happy Gardening…   

Toni :-)

Click HERE to watch a video of my pruning presentation.

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