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Forget the Hearts and Chocolates; February is for Pruning!

While romantics look to mid-February as a time to impress their favorite Valentine with chocolates and flowers, experienced gardeners know now is time to show their plants love through careful pruning! In a recent blog, Kerrie Roach discussed fruit tree pruning. Here, I will concentrate on ornamental landscape plants. While it is time to prune many plants, as usual, there is an exception to the rule. Do not prune plants that flower from late winter to mid-May, such as azalea, forsythia, and weigela, in winter. Gardenias also fall into this category but don’t bloom until June. Pruning now removes flower blooms resulting in a sparse spring floral display. Wait until after these plants complete flowering this spring to prune. For an extensive list of the optimal pruning times for individual plants, visit HGIC 1053 Pruning Shrubs.

Pruning is a job requiring deliberation. First, consider whether there is a need to prune. Unfortunately, late winter is abundant with examples of pruned plants that do not need pruning. One of the best examples is poor ol’ crape myrtle. Crape myrtle is a beautiful tree when left to grow to its full potential, as shown in the photo below.

These mature crape myrtles, one to the left and two to the right, have never been pruned, allowing them to reach their stunningly beautiful natural form. N. Jordan Franklin, ©2021 HGIC, Clemson Extension

These mature crape myrtles, one to the left and two to the right, have never been pruned, allowing them to reach their stunningly beautiful natural form.
N. Jordan Franklin, ©2021 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Sadly, crape myrtles are often indiscriminately topped by well-meaning gardeners and landscapers who think it is appropriate because it is late winter. Topping a tree is never a good idea, no matter the species. For more information about pruning crape myrtle, visit HGIC 1009 Crape Myrtle Pruning.

Topping crape myrtle is unnecessary and leads to unattractive and unhealthy plants. Vicky Bertagnolli ©2021 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Topping crape myrtle is unnecessary and leads to unattractive and unhealthy plants.
Vicky Bertagnolli ©2021 HGIC, Clemson Extension

When deciding whether pruning is needed, pause to consider the plant’s overall form and health. Start by removing dead, damaged, and diseased plant parts, which can and should be done any time of the year to improve plant health. Next, examine the plant for crossing branches that rub against each other. Branches rubbing together can damage each other, so prune out crossing branches. When a plant interior is crowded, restricting adequate airflow, remove older stems to open the plant canopy and rejuvenate growth. Often, after these pruning tasks are complete, no other pruning is necessary.

For more information about pruning tools, timing, and technique, visit The Art and Science of Pruning and HGIC 1003 Principles & Practices for Pruning Trees.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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