The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

February 22, 2013

"Ask A Master Gardener"

Ask A Master Gardener

TARBORO — Most sources say that February is the time to prune many shrubs, the focus of this week's column. This will answer your questions before you even asked.

Because fall and early winter pruning would reduce winter hardiness in your shrubs, late winter, while the plants are dormant, is the best time to prune and shape your shrubs before the new growth emerges in the spring. This does not pertain to spring-flowering shrubs (azaleas, rhododendrons, spiraea, forsythia, pieris and daphne) so anything you expect to bloom in the spring should not be pruned until after the flowers fade. Your evergreen hedges and foundation shrubs are hearty enough to take a good pruning this

month to encourage new growth.  To maintain a good height and width, cut back by no more than one-third and avoid any drastic pruning. Before you start, take time to sharpen your loppers and pruning shears and also make sure your power hedge trimmers are sharp, because after a while they become dull and tend to tear your limbs instead of cutting them.

Here are some tips from writer Lee Reich (The Pruning Book) and a list of common shrubs and trees to prune in late winter or early spring.

Pruning deciduous plants in the winter promotes fast regrowth in the spring, as most plants are dormant during the winter. It's also easier to see the shape of deciduous plants in the winter, since their foliage is gone.

• Prune on a mild, dry day.

• When pruning, first prune out dead and diseased branches.

• Then remove the overgrown and smaller branches to increase light and air at the crown of the tree.

• In general, your goal is to keep the branches that develop or maintain the structure of the tree.

• Cut branches at the node, the point at which one branch or twig attaches to another.

Pruning trees and shrubs may be the most feared act in gardening. But, remember that Nature is the Great Pruner. For example, when trees grow too close together, branches die as they compete for sunlight and airflow.

Pruning is a vital part of gardening.

Consider these three reasons:

To Thin: Remove to improve. Thinning is about cutting out all dead,

diseased, and injured parts to let in more air and light. Most important, thinning prevents confusion of a plant's structural line and enhances it health.

To Reduce: In Nature, most plants we grow are in splendid isolation, trying to spread unnaturally fast. Our job is to prevent certain shrubs and trees from outgrowing their position in a yard. Judicious reducing helps plants develop into sound structures without over-stressing their limbs. Also, maximum flowering and bountiful fruit are only possible by pruning.

To Amputate: It sounds harsh, but severe pruning is necessary to restore older trees and shrubs to better health. Most plants are amazingly forgiving with experimentation. Think twice, cut once, and watch carefully. Your plants will tell you in their own way how to do better next season.

To learn when it's best to prune a specific tree or shrub, there's a

calendar chart at this site listing shrubs  from Abelia to Yew:

Stop Crape Murder!

On another sensitive subject related to pruning right here in Edgecombe County is that of the innocent crape myrtle.  Again, late winter is the optimal time to prune crape myrtles. The purpose of pruning is to create a canopy in which air can circulate and all branches receive sunlight.

Unfortunately, many homeowners and landscape professionals prune crape myrtle trees too severely. Topping — commonly called "crape murder" — can be very damaging and disfiguring to the tree. This practice results in a "witch's broom" appearance and a tree that is no longer in proportion.

Topping causes profuse growth at the site of the pruning, basal sprouting, and increases susceptibility to disease and insects. It encourages new growth that is too dense to allow air movement and light to reach the inner branches. Large "knobs" appear where trees have been trimmed repeatedly, and the topped tree has an unsightly appearance until new growth appears.

Although topping may result in larger blooms, those flowers will grow on thinner, weaker branches that will droop — especially after rain — and may even break. Topping may also shorten the life of your trees.

To properly prune crape myrtles, use the following techniques.

• Remove suckers from the bottom of the plant.

• Remove crossed, damaged, or diseased branches. For crossed branches, remove the weaker of the two limbs that are crossing or rubbing.

• Prune tips of branches to remove old flowers. If old blooms are removed, a second blooming may occur.

• Thin out small twiggy growth to allow air to

better circulate in the canopy.


You have two options for rehabilitating a "murdered" crape myrtle.

• The first method is to choose the strongest two or three sprouts from each stub and remove all of the other sprouts. This will encourage the remaining sprouts to be stronger and the canopy of

the tree to be airier. If you follow this procedure for a couple of seasons, the tree is sure to be much improved in health and appearance.

• The second — and more drastic — technique is to cut the tree back to within one to two inches of the ground while the tree is dormant. After two to three weeks of growth, select three to five of

the most vigorous new shoots on each trunk and remove all others. Remove any new shoots that emerge later. Within three to five years, you will again have a natural-looking crape myrtle.

So, spread the word among your friends and neighbors to help eliminate crape murder. Use proper pruning techniques on your own trees, or ask your yard maintenance professionals about their pruning techniques. Remember to choose the appropriate size plant for the correct site, and prune very sparingly for beautiful crape myrtles in your yard.

"Ask A Master Gardener" is a weekly column providing our readers solutions to common problems concerning horticulture, gardening, and pest management. Trained Extension Master Gardener Volunteers have access to the research that provides answers.

Submit your questions by email to, call the local Extension Center at 641-7815 and tell them you have a question for a master gardener; a volunteer will return your call with a solution to your problem, or write to "Ask A Master Gardener", c/o The Daily Southerner, P.O. Box 1199, Tarboro, 27886.