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Plant Pruning Season

by Kathy Van Mullekom, a lifelong gardener & gardening writer living in Hampton Roads, VA

Oh, happy days – Spring is only 20 days away!

Which means it’s time to assess and prep – and prune -- your plants for another season of beauty.

If the word “prune” strikes fear in your heart, take comfort in the fact that pruning promotes good health in plants – but only when pruning is done at the right time and in the right way.

“Crape murder” is probably the most recognizable form of bad pruning, especially in landscaped areas at shopping centers and other commercial sites. In reality, crape myrtles need minor pruning, removing only crossing, rubbing and diseased branches to create a plant that gets good sunlight and air circulation. Crape murder is often used to control the size of a large plant put in a small space – another bad landscaping practice.

In my yard, pruning is practical and easy.

For shrub roses like Knock Outs, I use a pair of sharp shears to cut the plants back to about 8 to 12 inches above ground – no need to do interior pruning. Shrub roses can also be pruned during the growing season but keep it to a minimum.

My wax myrtle privacy hedge is also cut back – top and sides.

Camellias are pruned immediately after they finish flowering – remove interior branches so air and light penetrate the plant to help reduce disease and pest problems.

Deciduous shade trees are pruned for shape only and I try to do this when the trees are young and as they grow.

The dead foliage on groundcovers like liriope are best pruned by March when new growth begins to peek through the soil.

Some species like azaleas, need to wait until finish flowering or you cut off this year’s flower buds.

You can find many helpful gardening, including pruning, publications through Virginia Cooperative Extension at Your plants will thank you for taking the extra effort to learn how to prune them properly.

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Winter Pruning

by Kathy Van Mullekom, a lifelong gardener and gardening writer living in York County, Virginia

There was a time I was hesitant to prune my trees and shrubs, thinking I was doing them a disservice. Now, I prune religiously in late winter, because I’ve learned proper pruning promotes good health. The words “proper pruning” is the key element here. The goal is to remove crossing, rubbing, diseased, damaged and dying branches. Removing crossing branches opens up a plant to allow sun and light in, thereby giving pests and fungal diseases few, if any, places to thrive. This is especially important on crape myrtles, camellias and roses, which are susceptible to leaf-spot diseases that like dark, damp spots. And, please, don’t commit “crape murder” on your crape myrtles. Instead of sawing them back into short, ugly stubs, let the plants grow into their natural beautiful shapes, just as Mother Nature intended.

Roses are pruned according to the type of rose you have. Shrub roses like Knock Outs and Flower Carpets are sheared back to 12 to 15 inches above ground. Hybrid tea and other specialty roses are pruned to leave three to five strongest stems with buds directed outward.

Ornamental grasses can be pruned back to ground level anytime between now and the time new growth emerges. This year, I left the perennials intact in my pollinator garden, so beneficial insects would have a place to spend winter. I will clean up that bed around March 1.

If you are unsure about how to prune plants, follow the universal rule of pruning when flowers are finished. For instance, prune azaleas after they finish flowering but before July when they set their flower buds for next year.

When you prune, use bypass pruners for clean cuts. Disinfect your pruners between shrubs so you don’t spread disease. Lysol is a good disinfectant for your pruners. Also, clean up fallen leaves and other debris around the base of plants because pests and diseases can breed there, too.

You can find lots of helpful pruning publications, and other gardening tips, through Virginia Cooperative Extension at -- Kathy Van Mullekom, a lifelong gardener and gardening writer living in York County, Va. Contact her at

photos by Kathy Van Mullekom - Rose-of-Sharon before and after pruning

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