Dishing the dirt: maximize your pruning

Published 5:08 pm Monday, February 8, 2016

From the Extension Master Gardeners

In general, the best time to prune woody shrubs and trees is during late winter or early spring when plants are not actively growing. However, do not prune at that time any plants that bloom in the spring since you will be cutting off flower buds. These plants include azaleas, forsythia and quince. They should be pruned shortly after the blossoms fade but no later than the first week of July.

Know the natural shape of the plant and its mature size. Before purchasing any landscape plant, be sure to look at the label and note how tall and wide it will grow. Paying attention to that information will keep size issues in the future to a minimum. Make sure that you have a reason or purpose in mind before you start to prune. Pruning is done to improve shape and appearance (not drastically alter them); promote, control and stimulate healthy growth; and ensure safety.

Pruning requires the correct tools that are sharp and in good operating condition. Hand shears (bypass pruners) are used to cut branches up to ¾-inch diameter. Loppers are used to cut branches up to 1 ¾ inch and pruning saws cut up to 2 ½ inches on the back pull. Be sure to wear heavy duty gloves and protective eyewear. Disinfect between each cut if the plant shows disease with either a bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water) or 70 percent alcohol. After pruning for the day, use a light motor oil to clean and lubricate the tools.

Heading back and thinning cuts are used to prune woody plants. Heading back cuts result in the removal of about 6 to 10 inches of a branch. This cut results in thick regrowth and requires more maintenance in the long run. Using the bypass pruners, the cut should be made a ¼ to ½ inch above a bud or side branch, and slanted at a 45-degree angle away from the bud. Pick a bud or branch that points in the direction that you wish the new shoot to grow and cut the proper distance above that. Buds or branches that point to the outside of the plant are better choices than those that point inward.

Thinning cuts remove branches back to the stem (trunk), another side branch or all the way down to the ground. Using bypass pruners or loppers, begin in the center of the plant and remove any crossing, rubbing, broken or diseased branches. Cut away the oldest and/or tallest first. When thinning back to a side branch, pick a side branch that is at least one-third to half the size of the diameter of the branch you are removing. A combination of heading back and thinning cuts results in a beautifully pruned plant. Do not remove more than a third of the plant structure. Stop occasionally and walk around the plant to look over your progress.

Never top cut any tree, especially the crape myrtle. Topping is the process of cutting back a tree to a few large branches — some label this as “crape murder.” It doesn’t actually kill the tree but results in weakened, scruffy, “witches broom” branches that destroy the natural shape of this beautiful tree and are more likely to break. Crape myrtles come in a variety of sizes. Pick the right one and you will not have to mutilate this tree to keep it in shape.

Knockout roses are pruned when buds appear, usually mid-February. Beginning with thinning cuts, remove the older center canes to the ground and head back the rest of the branches to 18 inches. Knockout roses can be pruned throughout the summer but remember, the more you prune, the more you will stimulate new growth.

Hollies can be lightly pruned anytime but do not prune heavily from July through October if you want berries. Heavy pruning should be done late winter or early spring.

Mara Graves is an extension master gardener and contributed this article. The information for this article is given courtesy of the extension master gardeners who are volunteers under direction of the Beaufort County Cooperative Extension. They are available through the hot line to answer your questions concerning lawns, vegetables, trees, ornamentals, fruits, plant problems and diseases, pests, soil and many other horticulture issues relating to gardening in North Carolina. The hot line telephone number is 252-946-0111 and the hours are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon. You can leave a voice message at that number or email the master gardeners your question at and a volunteer will return you call on the next hot line work day.


February Gardening Calendar:

Lawn Care

Spot spray wild onions with the recommended herbicide.


Spread ashes from the fireplace around gardens and bulb beds where soil pH is below 6.0. Avoid acid-loving plants. (3 pounds of ash = 1 pound of limestone)

Shade trees can be fertilized.

Emerging spring flowering bulbs can be fertilized.


Asparagus crowns can be planted at this time.

Early February, sow beets, carrots, peas, lettuce, mustard, radish, spinach, Irish potatoes, and turnips.

Consider planting pansies in your salad garden for added color.

New grape vines and fruit trees can be planted in the landscape at this time.


Hardwood cuttings of many landscape plants like forsythia (yellow bells), flowering quince, weigela, crape myrtle, juniper, spirea and hydrangea can be taken this month.

Perennials like daylily and Shasta daisy can be divided at this time if the ground is dry enough.


Prune grape vines

Prune roses by Feb. 15

Prune deciduous trees and shrubs

Ornamental grasses like liriope and pampass grass should be trimmed and divided.

Weeds or unnecessary trees should be removed from the landscape.


Peach and nectarine trees need to be sprayed with a fungicide to prevent leaf curl.

Spray all fruit trees with dormant oil to eliminate some insects. This is especially important if the tree has just been pruned.

Other Activities

Now is a good time to fix or clean old birdhouses and put up new ones.

Develop a gardening plan for your landscape so you can start preparing for the spring.

Consider ordering new varieties along with tried-and-true varieties to see how they compare. Experimenting with varieties is fun and has virtually no ill effects.

Start seeds indoors in good planting medium.