Why it’s important to prune some plants before growth begins
Be prepared for some cutting remarks (sorry) – late winter’s the time to dust off your loppers, pruning saw and secateurs and prepare plants for a top show in summer.
When is late winter? It’s generally taken to mean February but like all gardening tasks, you can extend that a couple of weeks in either direction, depending on the weather, so don’t panic if you think you’re too late.
Don’t want to brave the weather? I don’t blame you. However, force yourself out there on a decent day, well wrapped up and it’s one of the most rewarding times to be in the garden. Choose a dull day – you don’t want to be looking up into the sun if you’re pruning a tree.
Redirect the plant’s energy
Why prune in late winter? Cutting a plant back when it is dormant or just starting into growth means all the energy can be put into developing fruit, flowers, etc.
It’s mostly for fruit trees, canes and bushes, late-flowering deciduous shrubs and clematis and removing any dead, rotting tissue from herbaceous perennials.
As ever, this list is not exhaustive and is based on my garden. Timing’s also arbitrary. Here are the most important areas to concentrate on:
- Apple and pear trees: winter pruning can be quite complex, depending on where your tree bears its fruit – check out my in-depth page here. Don’t over-prune or you’ll get water shoots that won’t bear fruit.
- Autumn-fruiting raspberries: cut canes to ground level and thin if required. See more on raspberries here.
- Gooseberries: remove dead and low-lying shoots. Spur prune side shoots to one to three buds from the base. Shorten branch tips by a quarter, cutting to an outward facing bud. More on gooseberries here.
- Currant fruit bushes: aim to remove older wood, leaving young shoots, as this is where fruit forms. Remove weak shoots, to give six-10 healthy shoots. More on blackcurrants here.
- Late-flowering deciduous shrubs: for example, Buddleja davidii, Ceratostigma, Hydrangea paniculata, Lavatera, Leycesteria, Perovskia, hardy fuchsias and deciduous Ceanothus. Flowers form on the current year’s growth, so hack the back hard for the best blooms and to keep them in check. More on deciduous shrubs here.
- Spiraea japonica: this deciduous shrub, (mine is Goldflame), has brightly-coloured spring foliage, so cut back hard to encourage new growth. More on deciduous shrubs here.
- Shrubs grown for winter bark or stem or young foliage: such as dogwoods (Cornus) and Eucalyptus gunnii. Pruning will promote the type of growth you’re after. Cut back hard every 2-3 years or to your required shape. More on colourful stems and bark here.
- Herbaceous perennials: I leave the dead foliage to act as winter structure and a home for beneficial insects. However, some falls victim to rot (hardy geraniums especially), so cut it back, mulch (avoiding the crown) and tidy up. More on hardy perennials here.
- Late-flowering clematis (Group 3): these plants flower on this year’s growth, so need to be pruned back hard in late winter, back to about three strong buds. If not cut back, flowers will appear higher up the plant – birds will get a good view but you won’t.
- Large-flowered clematis (Group 2): they flower in May/June. Prune hard to 1ft (30cm) above the ground when planting then when established, develop a framework of about 4 old wood stems. Don’t over-prune as you may lose flowers. Can also be cut back lightly after flowering to promote another flush of blooms later in summer.
- Acers (Japanese maple). I think pruning ruins their shape but if you have to, do it when the plant is dormant, as wounds tend to bleed when in active growth.
What NOT to prune in late winter
However, it’s not for everything. Steer clear of anything that flowers early – shrubs like Forsythia or group 1 clematis like C. montana or C. cirrhosa Freckles.
If you prune now, you’ll cut off all the flowers. Prune early-flowered shrubs and Group 1 clematis AFTER blooming – they need to grow for the rest of the season before flowering next year.
Also avoid pruning anything in the Prunus (cherry) family, as they can fall victim to silver leaf disease if cut back in winter.