Pruning, Part 1
February 2024, Gardening

Pruning, Part 1

By Kim Cantrell and Little Bird Gardens

It’s been hard not to notice that this winter has been unseasonably warm, minus our little cold snap in mid-January. Many plants came out of the freeze as if nothing had happened, and then there are those that showed signs that the extreme drop in temperature was not their friend, like the early blooming sasangua camellias, whose flowers turned a lovely shade of brown. Thankfully, many of the unopened buds did not seem to be affected, and there will still be some blooms to enjoy.

The tender perennials have the hardest time, and we will have to wait to see if they emerge in the spring. And some of my grasses don’t look particularly thrilled, either. I noticed this last year, too, when just about all the Carex testacea (New Zealand hair sedge) did not make it through the winter, though I think this may be more related to wet winter conditions, as these plants have proven to be quite resilient over the years.

As we think about what we hope to have in our gardens this year, and even though we got down into the teens this winter, be aware that we have moved into another USDA planting zone. We were zone 8b and are now in zone 9a, which means our winter’s average lowest temperature has been between 20 to 25 degrees in the last 10 years. Our little planet is warming up, and no doubt climate change is a factor. But this is just one bit of information to know when choosing a plant for your garden, and we should be mindful of other elements that will help with a plant’s success. Other components like soil type, slope face, moisture, and micro-climates will also play into whether a plant will survive in our local climate.

But what I imagine we are all thinking about as gardeners this time of year is pruning. With this warmer weather, there is a definite feeling of getting a head start on winter pruning. And as we are moving into what I call “pruning season,” I hope to help you ease up on this task that many feel is daunting, timely, and necessary. My focus here is a primer to help with the “Why & When.” I will address the “How-to” in another article.

Pruning is an art and a very special part of gardening, and should be treated as such. I love to prune, and I enjoy the intuition and finesse behind pruning. Over the years, I have seen my fair share of poor pruning, and I feel a deep need to stop it from happening to another shrub or tree. Poor things. So, let’s talk about some things before we start our annual trek to the shed to get our clippers, loppers, and saws.

Good pruning should be minimal, help in retaining the plant’s natural shape, and you will find in time that you will likely not need to prune at all. There are good cuts and bad cuts, there are times to prune and times not to prune. And taking the time to learn about each tree and shrub and its needs and unique behavior will save you time and create more enjoyment in your garden.

Pruning is often overdone and too much “pruning” is done with the almighty hedge trimmer. It’s for hedges – it’s in the name. I would say 90% of poor pruning is because of this tool. It is amazing how quickly you can ruin a beautiful specimen – it’s quick, easy, and voilá, everything is a perfect little ball. This is high-maintenance, and it can cost you as a homeowner to keep up with this method.

Thankfully, there are ways to correct poor pruning, and over time, one can return many plant specimens back to their former glory, though there are some things that cannot be undone.

If you are the one who does your own pruning, or you hire help, ask yourself and them … why are we pruning this? I hear It’s too big, It needs to be pruned, or It’s that time of year. So, let’s start with timing. It is almost always a fine time to prune. Pending a hard freeze or a stretch of scorcher days, then prune away.

I do most of my pruning in the winter/spring so I can see what is going on with my deciduous plants, which is much easier to do without leaves on the trees and shrubs. I keep my summer and fall pruning to the utmost minimum, mainly taking out deadwood and broken or diseased branches. Plants are already stressed at this time of year and we don’t need to add to that stress with excessive pruning – big cuts and the like. It is always good to research what plant you have and find the best time to prune accordingly.

This leads us to the next most common comment, it needs pruning. And I say, does it? I am often in disagreement on this topic. If it is planted in the right place (meaning it can grow to its genetically determined size), then it should not need pruning, bar the occasional broken or wayward limb or deadwood. If it was poorly placed in the landscape, then you just might find yourself pruning, pruning, and pruning, and when you’re done with that, a little more pruning. It might be time to move that plant or replace it with something that fits the space. Personally, I want to sit outside and enjoy my gardens as much as possible, without always feeling like there is something to do.

And this too big concept eludes me, too. What is this need to control the growth of a plant? The tree or shrub doesn’t know that, and all they are doing is being themselves. They are living things that come with a set of genetics that determine their ultimate size. Nothing you do will stop it from wanting to grow, and the constant stress you put those trees into repairing those wounds will be the death of them. Topping trees and hacking and whacking away will not serve anyone well. No view, homeowner’s association, or need to control should determine how big a tree should be and, hey, trees should be the view!

Many years ago, I was a lucky duck and had an opportunity to take the first Certified Master Pruning Series at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, mainly taught by Cass Turnbull. She has since left this precious earth of ours, but left behind an amazing book that I highly recommend to all. Her knowledge confirmed much of what I had learned, plus helped me with some additional refinement. I literally laughed out loud while reading Cass Turnbull’s “Guide to Pruning.” Get yourself a copy and enjoy an informative and funny read; you can also visit to learn more.

Next time, I’ll help you with some good pruning practices, cuts, and more. Take time to look around your garden and see what really needs to be pruned and you may find it all looks great with just a little snip here or there.

And just a little more advice, when in doubt, protect your investment and have a professional help you.

February 9, 2024

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