A little pruning sometimes needed

By FELDER RUSHING GUEST COLUMNIST,

Whacking overgrown shrubs back hard, like changing diapers, needs doing occasionally and can be worrisome the first time. But it usually works out fine.

And it doesn’t harm plants. Ever see where a drunk driver ran over hapless crape myrtles, and the plants sprouted right back out and bloomed just fine?

Horticulturists have been doing this for centuries (not while drunk driving of course). Cutting willows, red- or yellow-twig dogwoods, crape myrtles, and other multi-stem plants back to the ground, called coppicing, and cutting higher up on knots, called pollarding, produce straight fenceposts and twigs for weaving between the posts.

And, self-appointed tastemaker opinions aside, it doesn’t harm the plants whatsoever. Really. You with open minds, Google pollarding and coppicing.  

With the exceptions of conifers like cedar, juniper, and arborvitae, hard “rejuvenation” pruning stimulates strong new shoots which, pushed by an intact root system, will really jump.

Most folks prune shrub roses hard like this, but it can be a little scary, cutting really old landscape shrubs back to just stubby trunks.

Before I learned the physiology behind this in college arboriculture classes, I had only reluctantly done it as a kid being made to stop enjoying life until I finished cutting overgrown hedges way back. Did what I was told, never really thought about how well it worked. 

Later, while working for the campus landscape maintenance department at MSU, I was tasked with taking a chain saw to some 60-year-old hollies around historic Lee Hall. I was sure it would ruin them.

I would have preferred to limb the stately old specimen up into small evergreen trees by thinning out a few lower limbs, but the hard-pruned plants came right back out more vigorous than ever.

But hard pruning has some timing caveats. It takes weeks, maybe a couple of months, for new growth to break out, which can be nerve-wracking if family or neighbors are questioning you every week.

And the new growth needs time to mature before winter. Because of this, it’s best to rejuvenate in late winter, spring, or up to mid-summer, no later. You can do it in the early winter but the plants will just sit there nakedly ‘til spring, giving your neighbors more time to talk.

And of course while it’s fine to really whack back generic green shrubs and those that flower on new growth like roses, Abelia, and rose of Sharon in the winter spring or early summer, it’s best to wait for spring bloomers like azaleas, blueberries, wisteria, once-blooming roses and the like to finish flowering.

Main thing is, don’t prune shrubs really hard past mid-August. And by the way, pruning paints are cosmetic only; use them to impress someone else.

Another caveat: Because the new growth will be really vigorous, it’s important to come back soon after it emerges to “tip” prune it to make it bushy instead of shooting up overhead. You can do this until early fall, except for spring bloomers like azaleas and blueberries which need extra time to set flower buds before fall.

Another advantage to pruning overgrown shrubs hard is to expose any vines and tree seedlings. Cut those back to the ground, and brush or mist Roundup on the new growth to kill them roots and all without harming the nearby shrubs while they sprout back out.

Too bad we can’t prune frail old dogs and errant children, to start them over.

But there’s still a month or so to whack old or struggling shrubs, or blueberries that’re finished fruiting; wear a hat, stay hydrated, and watch for poison ivy and wasp nests.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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