Time to Prune, Groom and Clear the Way for Spring

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 26, 2009

You may be ready for spring, but is your garden? The final weeks of winter offer the last chance to clear away the remnants of last year's garden before new growth sprouts.

Shrubs and small trees are still dormant and can be pruned safely, and the absence of leaves makes the branch structure easier to see.

By pruning and grooming now, you can focus next month on enjoying the first crocuses and daffodils.

For specific advice and before-and-after photos, turn to Page 4.

Cutting Ornamental Grasses and Perennials

It's time to remove the dried top growth on ornamental grasses and most perennials, before new shoots are produced in early spring.

Grasses: Some are easier to cut back than others. Your best friend is a sharp pair of hedge shears that are powerful and safe. Some grasses have swordlike blades, so wear a long-sleeved coat with a high collar, a hat and work gloves.

If a grass clump is soft and has flattened, there is little advantage in tying it first. Attack grasses on sloping land from the uphill side so the blades fall away from you. Cut the clumps as close to the ground as possible.

Stiffer grasses should be tied before cutting to save time disposing of the grass. Use strong nylon string and form a loop in one end, wrap the string around the clump about halfway up, then thread the other end through the loop. Pull taut and tie.

After cutting, the old stalks can be removed in a single bundle.

Perennials: While grooming top growth, remove some of the winter windblown leaves from the base of the plant. Some varieties lend themselves to shears: epimedium, liriope, joe-pye weed and lamium, for example. Where delicacy is required, use hand pruners.

The Lenten rose is a popular perennial that is hard to get a jump on. The new shoots, leaves and buds have already grown from the center of the plants through the halo of old, floppy dark green foliage around the edges.

Lift the old leaves and trace the stalks to their base and remove them with hand pruners, being careful not to snip off a new stalk. Also remove any new leaves damaged by frost.

Shrubs for the Chopping

Some woody plants can be treated as perennials and cut back hard. That will keep them healthy, free-flowering and contained. Most people know to do it with buddleia or butterfly bush, but other candidates include Russian sage (considered something between an herbaceous and woody plant), smoke tree, chaste tree, caryopteris, beauty berry, Saint-John's-wort and shrub willows. Cut them to about 12 inches from the ground and remove suckers. Avoid cutting back hydrangeas and lavenders. You will need a pruning saw for the thickest branches, loppers for midsize ones and hand pruners for stems less than half an inch across.

Pruning and Trimming Shrubs and Vines

These woody plants are best pruned before they break dormancy, especially deciduous shrubs that are now revealing their branch structure. Remove branches that are weak, rubbing others or growing toward the center of the plant. Root suckers should be removed, too. Vines that have grown too large or congested can also be trimmed, including climbing hydrangeas, ivy, grapevines, wisteria and larger specimens of clematis. Leave some buds that will allow flowering this year. Nandina stems can be trimmed for tidiness and removal of winter damage. The oldest stalks can be cut back to the ground.

Pruning Roses

Rose bushes benefit from an annual pruning to reduce congestion and disease and encourage flowering. Loppers keep your hands away from thorns. Finish the task with hand pruners and work gloves.

Remove canes that are diseased, dying, crossing or growing inward. Remove all canes emerging from the ground below the graft swelling. Leave a bush with four to six canes, cut to about 18 inches in height. Try to prune, at an angle, a quarter of an inch above an outward-facing bud. The object is to open the center of the bush to bring in light and air. Climbers and ramblers should be cut after flowering in June.


Certain hardy annual weeds have been quietly growing over the winter and are about to shoot vigorously out of the ground to flower and reseed. The only way to break the cycle and prevent spring beds from being overrun is to deal with them now. Some of the most common culprits are henbit, chickweed and bittercress. Cut them with a sharp hoe or pull them with your hand. They yield easily in moist winter soil.

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