Garden Views: Some pruning tips as March Madness for gardeners begins

Get a head start by lightly pruning panicle hydrangeas in March.


Every gardener I know is aching to plant something or to get out in the garden right now.

Long days and comparatively warmer temperatures are tempting, but it’s still just a bit too early to start your summer plants indoors.

A few clipped words

One truly garden-y thing you can do now, though, is grab your secateurs and get out there and prune. “Secateurs” is the $50 word for garden clippers, but you knew that already, didn’t you?

They come in all shapes, sizes and price points, from dollar store bargains to mid-priced hardware store name brands to top-of the-line garden store gems. It all depends on your budget and how serious you are about gardening.

Dollar store clippers are fine if you’re a beginner and aren’t sure how far you want to go with gardening. They’ll probably last you a few years of light use, while you make up your mind. Just try not to drop them on hard surfaces and don’t tackle any old tough shrubs with them.

Experienced gardeners and professionals swear by Swiss-made Felco pruners. They come in a zillion configurations to fit different hand sizes and uses, and you can buy replacement parts for every part of them, from the razor-sharp blades to the tiniest screws and bolts.

A few notches down in price and quality are Fiskars pruners. Mine have lasted several years with average use. I’ve dropped them a few times and gotten them stuck in small branches too big to cut through, but they keep on snipping.

Why and when

Whatever you prune, you should do it to improve the plant: open the air flow, give it a better shape, trim back an old/overgrown shrub, encourage blooming. Most plants have a best time for pruning.

Late winter and early spring is prime time for cutting back old, heavy, overgrown vines like wisteria or even clematis. Cut out thick or weighty branches to help control these monsters.

You can also clip back the wispy, straggly bits from the very top of clematis vines now. That will save you time and energy when, later in spring, you’ll want to cut back to the lowest sprouting green buds.

Another timesaving tip is to lightly prune oversized plants that bloom in summer: big floppy Annabelle hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, potentillas and rose of Sharons.

When they start to start to sprout in spring, you can clip them back further, to a low pair of green buds.

If you have sprawling or flattened ornamental grasses, give them a haircut. Gather up the loose ends and tie them together with some cord, then cut them off close to the ground.

Of course, if your grasses are just drooping prettily, leave them alone and enjoy their winter look.

Do not cut back any vines or shrubs that bloom in springtime. No forsythias; lilacs; elderberries; rhododendrons; mophead, mountain or oakleaf hydrangeas. All these pretties bloom on the branches and stems they made last summer. If you cut them before they bloom, you’re cutting off this spring’s flowers. There’s nothing sadder than a naked forsythia cut back before its days of golden glory.

General how-to’s

• Use sharp bypass pruners (the blades cross like scissors) on live plants.
• On large plants, begin by trimming back the longest branches so you can get closer to prune properly without getting stabbed in the eye.
• Prune stems back to just above a fat node, where new branches will sprout. Think of the shape you want when you cut. Try not to make all the branches the same length. That just looks weird.
• Except for very vigorous plants (AKA thugs), avoid cutting into thick woody stems, which may not have enough energy to make new sprouts.
• Cut stems straight across, not at an angle, to help the cut heal over quickly.
• Watch your fingers!

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