Regular pruning rejuvenates plants

Pruning shrubs is an ongoing task. It is not a yearly pilgrimage to the yard to do major surgery. If you prune right, hand nippers will be the only tool you’ll need. It takes care of most problems. I’m sure you’ve noticed professionals always have nippers hanging on their waist every time they enter a yard.

Pruning rejuvenates plants. Take a good gander at your shrubs while wandering across your yard. Anytime you see branches extending beyond the shrub’s silhouette, nip them off. This keeps your shrubs looking natural. Avoid formal pruning. Yes it’s pretty, but it connotes work.

Take time to understand your shrubs. Photinia generates burst of growth each spring and fall. Prune just before those spurts to generate a fuller and more colorful display. The same goes for privet, mock orange, junipers and euonymus, but without the colorful leaves.

Let me digress a moment. If you don’t remove the dominant bud located at the tip of each stem, the stem continues extending and becomes gangly. When removing the dominant bud, a war breaks out. There are four or five dormant buds, found at the base of each leaf, that become active and attempt to become the leader or dominant bud. This is just what the doctor ordered – a thicker, fuller bush.

Here are some common mistakes made when pruning shrubs that ruin their beauty:

■ When pruning oleanders, nandina, Texas rangers, cassias and other desert-loving plants, you need to think opposite to the way many of us prune – that is shearing the tops. This creates excessive shade so you get fewer blossoms.

Oleander is a classic example. Hide those ugly naked canes at the plant’s base. This will be a three-year process but results bring about blooms covering the entire bush. Here’s how to do it:

Oleanders produce dozens of new basil canes each spring. Save about five and pull the rest out while they’re small. Next, remove about five of the oldest (biggest) canes from the bush.

This summer you will have three sets of canes on your shrub: new canes coming up, the older canes you’ll remove next year and those larger canes from last year’s growth. This summer younger canes will hide the older canes below. Next year and forever, repeat the process by removing all but five new canes and the oldest canes. Do you see what’s happening? You are creating a new plant and it is producing a total bouquet of blooms.

■ Suppose you have an overgrowing shrub you want to reduce down. The late Eric A. Johnson’s book “Pruning, Planting & Care” describes how to grow more than 300 native and adapted trees, shrubs, vines and flowers for our area. In its “Gallery of Dry Climate Plants” is pruning guidelines for each species.

One gardener uses Johnson’s book to keep her water-conserving plants well-manicured. She flagged all her plants and highlighted when to prune in his book and you’ll find a well-groomed yard with something always in bloom.

Johnson calls the reducing the size of shrubs his two-step naturalistic method. The beauty of pruning in this manner is its simplicity.

The expert said, “The ideal approach is to allow plants to grow undisturbed to their normal height and spread. In other words, after plants are established, leave them alone.” His method “controls the size of shrubs yet maintains a more natural shape and opens up the interior to sunlight, helping develop new flowering wood.”

“Step One: Use hand pruners to cut back branches and stems creating a rough globe shape.

“Step Two: Cut every other branch back to the first large ‘V’ (where it attaches to another branch). Vary length of cut randomly from 6 to 9 inches long.

“To maintain a shrub form, continually thin out other growth. It’s best to do this gradually each season before branches become too thick and woody and avoid the ‘stubbed’ look.”

■ If you planted a shrub for its flowering habits, you must prune at the right time.

Prune spring-flowering plants such as pyracantha and lilacs after they bloom. The reason is last year’s branches carry this year’s flowers. Pruning now removes those potential flowers.

Prune summer-flowering shrubs such as Chaste tree, Spanish broom, crape myrtle and rose of Sharon now. These late bloomers flower on this spring’s growth. If you are unsure of your shrubs’ blooming habits, prune them after they bloom.

Linn Mills’ garden column appears on Sundays. You can reached him at or call him at 526-1495.

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