The Dirt Diva

Tailoring your garden to your needs!

Spring Pruning How-To, and upcoming workshop


Essential pruning tools for sharp cuts

If you’re getting stir crazy and you just have to do something in the garden, I have a job for you! Gather your cutting tools and go out to shear your herbaceous (non-woody) perennials and prune your deciduous woody shrubs. Don’t worry, i’ll tell you how. Previously I wrote about pruning fruit trees. Like pruning fruit trees, an early spring ornamental shrub pruning can satisfy the itch to spend time in the garden when you can’t dig or plant yet. Thanks Judy for suggesting this topic btw :).

What you’ll need:

Pictured above, a pruning saw, loppers and hand pruners, (razor sharp and oiled of course) for pruning your woody shrubs. Pictured below, hedge clippers aka garden shears are for shearing to your herbaceous perennials, or for selectively chopping off leggy shoots on your woody shrubs to keep them neat during the growing season. They aren’t meant for pruning. (I discuss why toward the bottom of this post, with the illustration showing Conventional Shearing vs Sustainable Pruning.)

Garden shears. Look at those rusty blades! Very naughty.

Pruning your beloved shrubs takes some bravery. Many people are intimidated by this chore, thinking that cutting = killing. Not so! It is quite the opposite for most woody shrubs. Prepare to be shocked!

When exactly do you prune any given flowering shrub?

A good rule of thumb is: allow 3 months between pruning and the flowering time of the plant. The dormant winter months don’t count. So, a March or early April pruning allows enough time for a summer-flowering shrub like Hydrangea to set new flower buds. Spring bloomers like Forsythia, Rhododendron and Lilac are best pruned right after they flower, and they’ll have enough time to set new buds and flower the following spring.

How much are you supposed to cut off the plant?

An overgrown Spirea getting its March haircut, all the way to the ground.

The above photo shows  a Spirea shrub in the process of being cut way back (“stooled”) using hand  pruners. See the pale beige-ish round stem ends by the blade? The stems are now about 3 inches long. Are you shocked yet?

Rugosa Rose in July after an April stool-pruning

Look how nicely this Rugosa Rose recovered from the same pruning. This photo was taken later in the season. Stooling means cutting all the stems back to 3-6″ above the base, before the shrubs leaf out. The response will be a spray-like fountain of new growth full of flowers.

The following deciduous shrubs can be pruned way back (stooled) anytime from late March to about the 3rd week of April, without sacrificing this year’s blooms.


Barberry (grown for foliage)

Buddliea aka Butterfly Bush *after you see new green buds appear at the bottom of the plant, cut above those new buds.

Burning Bush (grown for foliage)

Caryopteris aka Blue Beard

Cornus stolonifera (aka Redtwig Dogwood-grown for its bright red stems in winter)

Cotinus aka Smokebush

*Hydrangea paniculata (the “cone shaped” flowering type)

Mock Orange


Rugosa rose

Spirea japonica

What about Hydrangeas?

To prune Hydrangea paniculata, which flower here late July- September: first cut out the oldest (thickest) stems, dead stems and crossing stems all the way to the ground, then cut back the remaining ones to between 12-18″ from the base, leaving at least 2 pairs of buds on each stem remaining. The result will surely look like you’ve killed it and its never coming back. Don’t despair! Your shrubs will reward you with renewed vigor, well placed stems, glossy new leaves and flowering buds.

Limelight Hydrangeas just before an early April pruning
The same Hydrangeas just after pruning
The same Limelights in Augst. I’d say they recovered nicely!

*A note about Hydrangea macrophylla- (aka Mop head or Lace cap Hydrangeas and the blue- flowering varieties) These flower on 2 year old wood, so you have to prune differently. Rather than pruning all the stems back to 2 sets of beds, prune only those that are weak, damaged or still have old flowers attached to them all the way to the ground. Shorten the remaining young (1 year old) stems back to about 2 feet. Give them a generous handful of granular fertilizer at this time to boost future blooming.

Conventional Shearing vs Pruning

Shearing herbaceous perennials is pretty straightforward. Its like giving a buzz cut to the plant after its finished for the year. If you didn’t cut back your perennials in the fall, you can do it in the spring! Shear all the remaining stems back to the base of the plant, to allow new leaves and stems to come up.  Shrubs require a slightly different tactic. Try to resist the urge to shear the outermost growth of your shrubs, unless you’ve got unruly stray stems poking out. All this does is promote twiggier branch ends, which result in light not reaching the center of the plant, which eventually = weaker plants. So, leave the shears sheathed and sharpen your loppers and pruners instead! See pic below for the difference between shearing branch ends, and pruning them.

Illustration from the book Caring For Perennials by Janet Macunovich

Along with pruning, I like to scratch in a balanced fertilizer around the base of the plant at pruning time to stimulate growth of flower buds. Go the extra mile and give your plants a top dressing of home made compost too, to enrich and condition the soil to benefit all the micro organisms living in the soil.

Pruning workshop in our area coming up, and one-on-one instruction

If you want some hands-on instruction from a pro and you’re up for a trip to New Paltz, consider attending Lee Reich’s Fearless Pruning workshop March 28th. The variety of fruiting trees and shrubs he has on his “farmden” is truly amazing, like WonkaLand for edible plants. Click here to see all the details and to register. If that doesn’t suit you or its too far, I offer one-on-one instruction at your home as part of my Dirt Therapy service. That way, your trees and shrubs get pruned and you get to take part and learn how to do it! Contact me to schedule. Have questions? You can post them in the comments section and I will answer as quickly as possible. Happy pruning!

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