In Ottawa (predominantly zone 4) this is a perfect time for pruning dormant shrubs and trees. The trick is knowing what should and should not be pruned or cut back this early.
Many trees and shrubs do not need pruning unless their growth is out of control or they have diseased, dead, or crossed branches. All such branches should be removed any time of the year, but while dormant it is easier to visualize the crossing or damaged branches. Cut broken branches back to the closest healthy branch. Cut diseased branches back to the ground. Cut crossing branches back to where they no longer cross/touch another branch. You may have to choose which of the crossing branches is the best one to keep.
Here is a list of plants you can cut back NOW…
- trees (it is much easier to see branches that need to be cut back before the leaves sprout). Oak, ash, birch, maple, linden, walnut, and fruit trees are on this list. Beware, some of these trees will release sap when cut this time of year.
- shrubs that do NOT flower in spring. Leave the pruning of lilacs, forsythia, etc until right AFTER they bloom. The shrubs you can prune now include hydrangeas, potentilla, spirea, (with the exception of bridal wreath variety) smoke tree, butterfly bush, ninebarks, false spirea, and weigela to name a few.
- shrubs grown for their foliage only (burning bush, willows, boxwood, euonymus, cedars, dogwoods, barberry, junipers, yews, etc)
- roses, except for the climbing variety. Cut back to 1/4 inch above an outward-facing bud/leaf node, slanting the cut at a 45-degree angle, away from the bud/leaf node. (see picture below)
- vines, (except those that flower early, like clematis) especially vigorous growers, can be cut back to 5 feet from the ground. My golden hops falls into this category. Left unpruned, it will take over my gardens, in one season.
- ornamental grasses (cut back to 4 inches from the ground)
- stalky perennials (these should snap off easily at ground level) like coneflowers, daisies,
- perennials that have died back to the ground, leaving mushy mounds, can be tidied up now. Hostas are an example. I cut my hostas back in the fall because I can’t handle the mushiness in the spring.
Other Garden Chores to do Early
There are several other garden chores you can get done early, as soon as spring fever hits…
- edging can be done as soon as the ground is thawed enough to get the edger in. The same applies to making your garden larger or changing its shape.
- perennials can be dug up, divided, and/or moved as soon as the ground thaws too.
- add compost or composted manure around your plants.
- take cuttings from any shrubs you have pruned. Dip the end into rooting hormone and put the cutting into a pot of soil. I make hundreds of new plants this way each year. They take a few years to reach maturity, but it does work.
- clean out and disinfect any pots you emptied in the fall that you plan to reuse this season.
- start annuals or perennial seeds indoors. My granddaughter loves to plant them and watch them grow.
- clean out birdhouses and replace damaged ones
- rake your lawn, hard, but wait until it is no longer soft and soggy.
- treat your lawn with weed & feed, preemergent crabgrass treatment, or grass seed. You cannot treat for weeds and spread seed at the same time. If you treat for weeds now, wait six weeks before adding seed. Fescue is best in our area, grubs don’t like the roots.
- powerwash verandas, decks, fences, patios, patio furniture, and any other surfaces that get dirty/moldy over the winter.
- leave the debris in the gardens though, as bees and other beneficial critters are still hiding there.
As New Growth Appears
Some plants, like most varieties of clematis vines, should only be cut back (to 4 inches) when new growth appears. This happens sometime after the dormant stage and before the last frost date.
After the Last Frost
Some garden chores must wait until the chance of frost is gone. I rely on the blooming of my forsythia to tell me when it’s time. Mother Nature is amazing and the forsythias haven’t steered me wrong yet. Here is a list of garden chores that should wait…
- pruning climbing roses. Cut lateral (side shoots emerging from the main stem) shoots back to two buds from the main stem. As above, angle your cuts. As the lateral shoots grow, tuck them into their trellis (or whatever they are growing against) horizontally. They produce more blooms that way.
- trim old growth from late bloomers like hibiscus only when new growth appears. Every year I worry mine did not make it through the winter, then bang, they show up, just as I’m about to give up on them and pull them out. My advice? If you think yours has croaked, wait a week.
So, if spring fever has hit you (as it has me) get out into your yard and garden to get a start on things. Start with pruning trees and shrubs on the list above.
Just don’t forget to do your stretches first! Your muscles will thank you.
feature (top) image credit to Pixabay