Spring is here according to our calendars and the nice weather, although I’ve heard rumours the colder stuff will return for a bit soon. There are many garden or yard chores that should be done this time of year (late winter, early spring) when plants are dormant and not put off until the last frost date.
Late winter is considered to be approximately 6 weeks before the beginning of the spring thaw, so will depend on where you live. If you are not sure, count backwards from your area’s last frost date. To me (in zone 4 or 5) this means early April is (usually) late winter or early spring. I can always hope earlier.
Dead, Broken, Diseased, or Crossing Branches
Pruning is done for several reasons, even cosmetic ones. It is much easier to see the “bone structure” of your trees before they leaf out, so pruning shade trees like oak and maples now, while they are still dormant, is perfect timing.
Dead, broken, diseased or crossing/rubbing branches can be cut back at any time during the year. This applies to trees and shrubs. Cut right to the next branch, without leaving a stub. In the case of crossing or rubbing branches, decide which of the crossing branches lends best to the overall shape of the tree or shrub and remove the other. Keep in mind branches should grow upwards and outwards for optimal shape. Heavy snowfalls and winter winds can snap even the healthiest of branches. These broken branches should be removed for aesthetic purposes as well as for the continued health of the tree or shrub.
Although it may be difficult to determine if branches are dead or diseased yet, you can mark any suspicious ones for pruning later if this is the case. There is no wrong time to remove dead or diseased branches.
Shaping or Rejuvenation
Trees and shrubs always look nicer and tidier when shaped properly and not overgrown. Now is the time to do this, before new growth begins blurring the shape. This is especially true if you have a hard time cutting out perfectly healthy branches.
Pruning to enhance the shape will encourage and stimulate new growth in spring, which is when you want to encourage new growth. Pruning in fall, however, encourages growth when future cold weather could kill it off.
Overgrown shrubs and trees also benefit from drastic rejuvenation this time of year. Again, this is because the new growth that will be stimulated has a better chance of survival heading into spring rather than winter. I have had particular success drastically cutting back overgrown dappled willows and forsythia in my business. Even though forsythia is on the list of shrubs not to trim back early, this one was so overgrown my client just wanted it reduced in size, willing to sacrifice the blooms that year.
Evergreen Trees and Shrubs to Prune now
If removing the lower branches of evergreens in your landscape is something you have been considering, now is the time to do so. This is a great way to drastically change your landscape and even improve the condition of your lawn that tries to grow under them.
Boxwoods, yews, holly, and other evergreen shrubs should be trimmed now, while dormant, and before new growth appears. Spruce and firs can be trimmed back now, but pruning pines should wait until June or July, after their first growth of what are called candles (new shoots at the tips). No earlier and no later. With pines, prune (delay growth) by cutting back the candles by half or remove dead, diseased, broken (or unwanted lower) branches to their main stem.
When to Prune?
The general rule of thumb is “if it blooms before June, prune after flowering. If it blooms after June, prune in spring.” That is because spring bloomers do so on older (last year’s) wood, while later flowers come from new (spring generated) wood.
Shrubs or Trees You Should NOT Prune Now
There are exceptions to the “most trees and shrubs” that benefit from spring pruning. These would be the ones that flower early and prefer pruning after they flower. They include:
- bridle wreath spirea
- mophead and oakleaf hydrangea
- spring blooming clematis
- flowering almond
- mock orange
- nine barks
- witch hazel
- spring flowering trees like plum, cherry, pear or dogwood
Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses and Perennials
If you left your ornamental grasses to sway in the winter winds, cut them back as soon as you can get to them, even if you have to wade through some lingering snow. Ornamental grasses should be cut back to four to six inches from the ground. It is much easier to do this now than to wait until new growth starts when you will have to pick the dead and crispy brown stalks from the tender new green shoots. I did mine a few weeks ago when I was itching to do something garden related.
This applies to other perennials you left over the winter. Bird lovers often leave seed heads and pods for their fine feathered friends to snack on. Some leave perennial stalks for their beauty when covered in snow or some variation in an otherwise bleak-looking winter garden. For whatever reason you have left yours intact, now is the time to cut (snap off) the brown and crispy stalks down to ground level.
For more ideas on what you can tackle in your garden this early, check out last year’s post at this time of year.
I’ve got my ornamental grasses cut back already and my lawn raked and seeded, with edging next on my agenda. Garden cleanups will have to wait a few more weeks.