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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

March: The Lost Art of Pruning

This month, Kip discusses the importance of pruning and being prepared as the first spring plants begin to emerge in the garden
by Kip Anderson

Pruning is an abandoned art in most American gardens, and that is a shame because proper pruning greatly improves the vigor and beauty of the most significant permanent living features in the landscape, trees and shrubs.

Late winter, before the new season's leaf and flower buds have begun to break, is a great time to prune many types of woody plants, especially those that flower on new wood. In general, we do not want to prune plants that flower in the spring (e.g. Forsythia, Kolkwitzia, Spiraea nipponica, Deutzia, Chaenomeles, etc.) until after they have bloomed, for if we do then we will have diminished the spring show. Exceptions to this rule are fruiting trees such as apples and pears, where we want to establish a strong frame to support the fruit load that comes much later in the season.

Dwarf spiraeas (S. japonica cultivars), because they flower on new wood in the summer, should be cut nearly to the ground in March. Have no fear: new shoots will arise from the base of the cut stems, and flowers will appear atop a neat hemispherical mound.

Hydrangea paniculata cultivars (e.g. 'PG' and 'Tardiva') should be reduced to a spare framework of any desired size and shape. Make your cuts just above a bud node, and don't be afraid to remove most of last year's growth (unless you are still trying to establish a larger base-frame, such as a standard form) — the new growth will soon amaze you as it fights back with a vengeance. But be warned: Other types of hydrangeas require entirely different pruning protocols, and before going after them it might be wise to consult a reference book on pruning.

Shrubs such as Beautyberry (Callicarpa), Bluebeard (Caryopteris) and Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) are usually late to show new growth, and their pruning can be delayed accordingly. The principle is the same: Cut out all twiggy growth and create a nice open framework.

The herbaceous flower border will also require some of your attention in the spring...


The spring is signaled by advancing light,
By stunning clumps of white and purple crocus,
And by the way my winter mind must fight
To reestablish necessary focus.

So here I am, knee-deep in catalogs,
Oblivious to any daffodil
Whose trumpet may have pierced the vernal fogs
Still shrouding unexpected winterkill.

With work to do, I scour my books for theory
On how to fend disaster; meanwhile, tulips
Bloom in the garden and, becoming weary
Of text, I dream of summertime's mint juleps.

I must be sure to tidy up the border
Before the yearly show of allium,
For otherwise my doctor may well order
Another double dose of Valium.

— C. B. Anderson

The best strategy for successful gardening is to wake up and get going before the plants start growing.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007