Deciding what to cut

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In spring when you've discovered winter's toll:

  • Dead or badly damaged? Cut it -- sooner rather than later. In early spring new growth erupts with more energy than at any other time of year. If you cut out what could only grow weakly, the plant will put more oomph into the rest, and push out more new buds. See Sage says cut weak wood hard. and Remedy rabbit damage for detailed examples.
  • Cut back any branch growing in a direction you Euonym8111s.jpgdon't like, even if it is not damaged: Now is a good time. Prune to just above a better-directed bud or branch. Spring's strong growth will do the rest. 

Right: Evergreen wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) always has
at least one wild branch. This one lost foliage to the cold,
above what was then the snow line. Like other broadleaf
evergreens it can grow back after defoliation. Yet why
suffer unattractive branches? Cut it!

  • On a needled evergreen, make every cut to just above a side branch that has intact needles or live buds. Leave a tip-less end and you create a leafless stub -- ugly brown that also blocks light from deeper buds. See What's Coming Up 188 for detailed clipping instructions and photos for a whole line-up of needled evergreens.
  • On a deciduous shrub or tree, or a broadleaf evergeen shrub, you simply cut to strong, undamaged wood. Don't be concerned about preserving buds or leaves. Don't worry if this creates "holes" in a plant's surface. Light will penetrate there and stimulate the growth of dormant buds. New greenery will fill the hole and increase the depth of the plant's canopy. (More about this on a falsecypress.)
  • Where all live buds are concentrated at branch ends, cut at least some branches back to well below the buds. New growth will erupt from below each cut. (Bayberry and holly as examples.)
  • Can't tell if it's dead? Check back weekly. Prune as soone as growth begins. Leave strong shoots. (Boxwood as an example.)

You can cut almost anything almost any time but sometimes a particular timing increases efficiency and insures a better outcome, sooner. See Timeline for trimming.

 Hose helps in pruning conifers



Right: This blue Sawara falsecypress lost not only foliage but some buds to winter's cold. The remaining foliage will be more than enough to support the plant. We'll prune to remove the dead, weakest and most crowded twigs.

Seeing clearly is half the battle, in pruning. When you work on conifers such as this falsecypress you can use a strong stream of water to clear away dead needles. This helps you see where to cut, admits more light to remaining buds and decreases dead needle build up that can turn the plant's interior into a congested, dusty place -- a haven for pesty mites.





Bunched buds? Cut harder.

Fragrant bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is evergreen in mild climates. Cold can make it drop its foliage but it makes a strong comeback from the wax-protected buds (right) and it can push dormant growth even from leafless wood. So when a bayberry like this one (below) defoliates in winter, don't just shear its unfortunate clutter of branched tips that spring. Cut some branches back below the crowded outer shell. Greenery will sprout from within.

 BaybryAll7990s.jpg BaybryTwigs7999s.jpg


Continual shearing without any thinning can turn evergreen holly into a hollow ball. If your holly looks like this after winter, it may be a blessing. (Right; yes, all those browned leaves are doomed to fall.)

Cut out all the of the holly's spindly stems. Then cut all the husky wood so new shoots it produces can grow for several inches before being sheared again. Finally, cut about 1/3 of the branches back even further so new growth will come from many levels within the outline. (This will almost certainly remove all flower buds. You sacrifice one year's flower and fruit for a plant that is denser and eventually more fruitful. For more about pruning to rejuvenate a hollow holly, see Hard cuts for overgrown holly.)

Wait and see strategy

Betting on boxwood: Some varieties of boxwood go bronze during winter but those leaves green up again as spring advances. If you are not sure your boxwood follows that procedure, wait for new growth to begin then cut as you see fit.

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