In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
April, 2004
Regional Report

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Time for a trim! This forsythia jungle is encroaching on our roof.

Cutting Back

I have been doing some pruning this week, and the neighbors are noticing some drastic changes in my front yard. For instance, I cut my dogwood shrubs (Cornus sericea, etc.) almost to the ground. This will stimulate new stem growth with brighter colors; the red and gold winter bark these bushes are noted for will once again become apparent.

I'll do the same to my forsythia bushes as soon as they finish blooming. Cutting these to the ground is one way to renewal prune. It is the lazy way or the quick and dirty way, but it is also a time-saver for the busy gardener. (These babies run 12 by 12 feet and up!) I will use whatever tools I need to get the job done. Loppers will work fine, but it is faster to use a chain saw. I do this about every fifth year instead of pruning them selectively every spring.

Selective Pruning
I could do the same thing to the overgrown, white-flowered spireas, but I prefer to thin these annually. To do that, I climb in under the bush on my hands and knees and cut out the oldest stems as close to the ground as I can manage. I take out about a fifth of the stems each spring, right after the plant blooms.

Lilacs can also be pruned each year, right after bloom time. I snip off all the little root sprouts -- anything smaller in diameter than a pencil -- right at the ground. Then I stand back and look at the overall shrub with an eye to removing about a quarter of the oldest stems. This helps open up the plant so air and light can reach the center. Again, I cut at the bottom, as low as I can get. Sometimes I use a pruning saw, sometimes loppers, sometimes hand pruners, depending on the size of the stem I'm cutting.

Annual pruning helps keep these deciduous, flowering shrubs healthy with lots of vigorous new growth. It preserves their natural shape and promotes maximum bloom. But the one thing it can't do is control their overall size.

Controlling Size
Old established shrubs regrow very fast after pruning. Even if cut to the ground, they regain their full size in just a season or two. If you have an overgrown shrub that is just plain too big for its spot, quit hacking it back all summer and consider replacing it.

There are many excellent smaller-sized shrubs on the market today, including smaller cultivars of old favorites. So there is absolutely no justification for butchering a monster forsythia into a mean little meatball.


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