Get Your Landscape in Shape with Late Winter Pruning

Author’s Disclaimer: This article is written from the perspective of gardening in the U.S. Southeast. While I am writing from Zone 7, the information in this article can generally apply to any region. If you have questions you can either leave a comment below or contact your local garden retailer. In warmer regions where there isn’t a harsh enough winter for plants to go dormant, remember it is always appropriate to prune what is dead, diseased, or dying.

Why Prune in Late Winter?

Late winter is prime time to prune before spring causes plants to break dormancy and get their juices flowing. It’s wise to prune while plants are dormant; plants are able to heal quickly making them less susceptible to invasion from pests and diseases during the healing process. Another advantage is that it’s easier to see the branching structure of deciduous plants (plants that lose their leaves in the winter), allowing you to prune for a pleasing shape.

What Should I Prune and How Should I Prune it?

  • Evergreen Shrubs and Trees

Late winter is a great time to prune evergreen shrubs (plants that hold on to their leaves in the winter) for shape. Just be wary of regions that experience big temperature swings this time of year, I’m looking at you, North Carolina! You don’t want to prune evergreen shrubs within at least a few days of freezing temperatures in an effort to prevent cold damage. Plants that are marginally hardy in your area will be particularly vulnerable to this damage.

  • Deciduous Shrubs and Trees

Late winter is a great time to prune these plants. Again, I mostly prune for shape this time of year as it’s when you get the best view of the structure of the plant itself. You can shape up plants such as Japanese maples, limb up shade trees, or make a focal shrub look more architectural. Remember to use the three-cut method when pruning large branches and take care to match the size of the branches you are pruning to the size of your tools. You don’t want to limb up your mature oak tree with a pair of hand pruners.

  • Crape Myrtles

Crape myrtles are deserving of their own category as they are susceptible to the infamous practice of “crape murder” where crape myrtles are ruthlessly topped. This often occurs because the crape myrtle was poorly selected and grew too tall for its space. If this is the case and there is no solution but to chop the poor tree, consider removing it and choosing a plant that is more appropriate for the space. If continued, this practice leads to weak branches that can’t support large flower heads and the tree will produce less flowers overall. Instead, crape myrtles should be pruned by the individual branch with care. In a younger crape myrtle, remove trunks that will end up crossing or rubbing in the future. When that occurs it gives pests and diseases the opportunity to move in. In all cases, remove crossed branches when possible. Remove all branches that are damaged or diseased. Then remove all suckers, branches thinner than a pencil, and tip branches to remove last year’s flowers. Now you have a gorgeous crape myrtle!

  • Roses

Roses are pruned in a similar fashion to crape myrtles where the dead, diseased, and crossing branches are removed first. Then remove anything smaller than a pencil. Cut back at least one third from each branch to reduce height. The exception here is for new roses, you don’t want to prune closer than a foot from the crown. Don’t be too nervous about pruning your roses, they’re tougher than you think and they love a regenerative pruning!

  • Ornamental Grasses

This includes plants such as monkey grass (or liriope), miscanthus, pink muhly grass, etc. Taller grasses can simply be cut down so that six inches to a foot remains. Smaller grasses such as monkey grass can be mowed with the mower deck raised to three inches or so. The main purpose here is to either remove dormant growth before fresh growth emerges or to cut off grass that has been damaged or burnt over the course of the year.

  • Perennials

Perennial flowers should already be cut back by now, but remember to remove any dead leaves or flower stems that may have made it through the winter.

Do you routinely prune your landscape? Let us know your tips and tricks in the comments section below.

– Jennifer

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