Spring pruning

A time to plant and a time to reap….

The words of Pete Seeger’s much-loved song are surely apt for north country gardeners, where the ebb and flow of the seasons dictate the rhythms of our lives.

And for this gardener I would add there are also times to prune and times to enjoy the fruits of my pruning.

Back in March I talked about the pleasures of late winter pruning which is the perfect time to improve the aesthetics of a plant. With deciduous trees and shrubs completely bare, one can see at a glance how to eliminate crossing branches and generally to open up the interior for a more structured look, or whether to remove a branch that is either too low or too high. I also find that late winter pruning has a meditative quality and the perfect cure for cabin fever.

The blossoms of the lilacs, crab apples and a purple leaf sandcherry bring glorious color and fragrance to the late spring garden

But spring pruning is different; it is all about housekeeping after the ravages of winter, and in the busyness of the season it needs to be done in a hurry.

It is Mid-May and here in Vermont the initial excitement of spring with its myriad daffodils is over. The serviceberries have done blooming, and now it is the turn of the lilacs and crab apples to astound us with their blossoms.

But, despite the thrill of the emerging season, all of a sudden my garden seems scruffy and in need of serious attention.

In part this is due to the dandelions that have appeared en masse out of nowhere. But even more this unkempt feel is because my shrubs are crying out for haircuts.

Removing the ravages of winter

In springtime fat buds of green emerge all along the stems of many garden shrubs, but towards the top the new buds are non-existent or paltry at best. This phenomenon is known as winter-dieback, a sign that the topmost tissues of the stem were killed by last winter’s cold.  And it is a signal to the gardener that a little spring pruning is in order.

Here is how to remedy the problem. First cut out any stems that are dead, cutting them out right at the base of the shrub.

Then for each stem with green buds, choose a good strong-growing, outward-facing bud, and cut off the everything above that bud. This is called making a heading cut, and it stimulates all the buds below, but most especially the top one, to grow more actively. So, by making your cut just above an outward growing bud, in the summer you will have an attractive outward growing shrub.

Happy results

The leaf color of Spirea ‘Goldflame’ adds interest to the perennial border all season but , and it is especially intense in spring

Last week, unable to stand the scruffy look of the late spring garden any longer, I changed my plans for the day to undertake a blitz of spring pruning.

I hit all the shrubs already leafing out that are prone to winter-dieback including: the Purple-leafed Sandcherry (Prunus cistena), Roses, Spireas, and the fall-flowering hydrangea, (Hydrangea paniculata).

But I will wait another week or more to prune the Clethera and Potentilla. These are always the last shrubs to leaf out each spring.

Hydrangea paniculata after its May pruning to remove dead wood and spent flowers


The results of my pruning efforts were dramatic: in the course of six hours the scruffy was gone and the garden transformed. Here are three shrubs up close after their spring haircut!





I love the color of purple leaf sand cherry but it’s shape can become leggy looking. Last spring I pruned this one using heading cuts which stimulated a more compact shape.

 And what not to prune!

Some shrubs, especially lilacs and azaleas, form their flower buds for the following year within weeks after they have finished flowering.  Look carefully and you will see the new buds.

So the rule of thumb for these shrubs is to prune them immediately AFTER they have flowered, and before they set up buds for next year. That way you will not sacrifice next year’s flowers.

Leave a Reply