Pruning Flowering Shrubs

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Why Prune?

Pruning has a major influence on a shrub’s flowering habit, shape, size and pest problems.

Prune to Encourage Flowering

Pruning has a major influence on shrub flowering.  Over time, an unpruned flowering shrub becomes woody with little new growth to support flower bud development.

Spring-flowering shrubs bloom on one-year-old wood (twigs that grew new the previous summer).  Buds develop in midsummer through fall for the following spring.  Pruning in the fall and winter removes flowering wood with buds.  Spring-flowering shrubs can be rejuvenated or thinned in early spring before flowering or growth starts [Figures 1 and 2].  Thinning can also be done right after bloom to maximize the next season’s flowers.  Spring-flowering shrubs include forsythia (Forsythia spp.), Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa), quince (Chaenomelea spp.), bridalwreath and Vanhoutte spireas (Spiraea prunifolia, S. plenaflora ‘Plena’ and S. x vanhouttei), viburnum (Viburnum spp.), beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), lilac (Syringa spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), peashrub (Caragana spp.), deutzia (Deutzia spp.), and weigela (Weigela spp.).

On spring-flowering shrubs it is recommended to “deadhead” spent blooms (remove flowers after they fade).  While time-consuming, deadheading conserves the plant’s energy, which would otherwise be spent on seedpod and seed development.  On many shrubs, the spent flowers and seedpods are not attractive (lilacs). 

Spring flowers shrubs bloom on last year's wood
Figure 1. Spring- flowering shrubs bloom from buds that developed on new wood the previous summer.



Sheared lilacs
Figure 2.  Fall shearing of this spring-flowering lilac removed flower buds on the lower section of the shrubs.




Summer-flowering shrubs bloom on new wood that grew earlier in the growing season.  Summer-flowering shrubs are also pruned by thinning or rejuvenation in the early spring before growth starts.  [Figure 3]

Summer-flowering shrubs include most butterfly bush (Buddleia spp. and Cassia spp.), blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis), Hancock coralberry (Symphoricarpos x chenaultii ‘Hancock’), mockorange (Philadelphus spp.), potentilla (Potentilla spp.), Bumald and Japanese spirea (Spiraea x bumalda and  S. japonica), Annabelle and Peegee hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and H. paniculata), shrub althea or rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.).

Removing older canes of flowering shrubs also allows better sunlight penetration into the shrub.  This results in better flowering throughout the shrub, instead of flowers just at the top where sunlight is sufficient.

On shrubs noted for their bark color, like red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), the new shoot growth has more brilliant color.  Routine pruning at the base encourages new shoots, which have the desired red color. 

Summer flowering shrubs bloom on new wood

Figure 3. Summer-flowering shrubs bloom from buds that developed on new wood that grew earlier this growing season.


Prune to Direct Shape

Shaping is another reason for pruning shrubs.  Shape can be managed to some degree by pruning to side buds or branches growing in the desired direction.  While pruning can provide some control over size, it is not an effective method to keep a large shrub in a small space.  Where shrubs have overgrown their space, consider replacing the plants with smaller cultivars or other species.  [Figures 4 and 5]

pruning to direct growth
Figure 4. Shape can be managed to some extent by pruning to buds and branches growing in the desired direction of growth. [Line drawing: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture]



pruning to shape
Figure 5. Pruning to inward growing buds or branches results in narrower shrubs.  Pruning to outward-growing buds or branches results in wider shrubs. [Line drawing: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture]


Prune to Manage Pests

Pruning is a management technique for some insect or disease problems.  For example, removing the older wood in lilac reduces oystershell scale and borer problems.  Thinning a shrub to increase air circulation reduces the incidence of powdery mildew and leaf spot diseases. 

Pruning Methods for Flowering Shrubs

The primary objective in pruning flowering shrubs is to encourage new (flowering) growth from the base.  This is best accomplished by thinning at the base or rejuvenation. 

Branch-by-Branch Shaping

Branch-by-branch shaping involves shortening the length of excessively long branches by cutting them back one by one.  Cuts are made back in the shrub, leaving branches at varying lengths.  Avoid making cuts at a uniform “edge,” creating a rounded ball.  Make cuts at appropriate branch unions (crotches) or buds.  [Figure 6]

This method maintains a more naturally shaped shrub, but does not significantly encourage new growth of flowering wood for maximum bloom.  Branch by branch shaping is a slow process.

branch by branch shaping
Figure 6.  With branch-by-branch shaping, long branches are cut back into the shrub, giving a more natural shape.  Avoid making cuts at a uniform “edge”, creating a rounded ball.


Shearing to Shape

Shearing shrubs to round balls or other desired shapes is a common pruning technique because it is quick and easy.  However, sheared shrubs lose their natural shape, and the rounded “balls” may detract from a more natural informal landscape design.  Shaping spring-flowering shrubs after midsummer removes the new wood with next year’s blossoms.  Frequent shearing does not encourage new growth from the base, which is needed to promote flowering. 

With frequent shearing, the plant becomes bushier on the exterior.  The thick outer foliage may shade out the interior and lower foliage, and the plant becomes a thin shell of foliage with a woody interior and base.  The thin shell of foliage is prone to browning and burning from wind and cold weather.  Over time, shrubs become woody, with lots of dead branches and few flowers.  When shrubs become overly woody from routine shearing, replacement is the best option to refresh the landscape design.  [Figures 7-10]


Topped shrubs develops woody base
Figure 7. Flowering shrubs pruned by topping or shearing become woody at the base. [Line drawing: USDA]]



Sheared barberry becoming woody
Figure 8.  Over time, sheared shrubs become woody with dead sections.  The only treatment at this point is to replace the shrub.



Sheared forsythia in full bloom
Figure 9.  Sheared forsythia in full bloom.  Shearing does not encourage new wood with blossoms.



Properly pruned hedge
Figure 10. Properly pruned hedge is wider at the base.  In shearing hedges, maintain the natural shape of the plant.  A common mistake is to shape shrubs with a wide top and narrow base.  Lack of sunlight shades out lower interior growth resulting in a woody base.



Thinning

One method to encourage shrub flowering is annual thinning.  The objective is to remove one-third of the oldest wood to the ground each year, which in turn stimulates new, better flowering, growth from the base of the shrub.  Thinning is more easily done with leafless branches in early spring before growth starts but can also be done in summer.  This method is time-consuming and does not work well on twiggy, multi-stem shrubs like spirea.  [Figure 11] 

Cutting back and thinning an overgrown shrub will not restore its natural, informal form.  It will look like an over-grown shrub that has been pruned. Rejuvenation pruning followed by thinning is better for overgrown shrubs.

Annual thinning of shrub
Figure 11.  Annual thinning removes one-third of the oldest wood to the base each spring.  This encourages new growth from the base, keeping the shrub youthful looking. [Line drawing: USDA]


Rejuvenation Pruning

Many shrubs can be easily renewed with rejuvenation pruning.  The shrub is cut entirely to the ground in the early spring before growth starts.  The shrub regrows from roots, giving a compact, youthful plant with maximum bloom.  Rejuvenation can have a major effect on size. This method is preferred for many flowering shrubs because it is quick and easy with great results. Initial rejuvenation should be followed by thinning new canes to several strong ones over the next several years. Remove weak cane growth at the base (ground level).

Rejuvenation is typically done no more than every three to five years when a shrub begins to look gangly and woody.  It works very well on multi-stemmed, twiggy-type shrubs such as spirea, Caryopteris (blue mist spirea), Potentilla, red-twig dogwood, sumac (Rhus spp.), and hydrangea.  (Note: Caryopteris flowers best if renewed each spring.)  Also use this method to rejuvenate lilac, privets (Ligustrum spp.), barberry (Berberis spp.), forsythia, flowering quince, honeysuckle, mockorange, flowering weigela, beautybush, many viburnums, elderberry (Sambucus spp.), and others.

Limitations

  • Spring-flowering shrubs will not bloom the year of rejuvenation.   
  • On shrubs with a rock and weed fabric mulch, rejuvenation may not be successful due to decreased root vigor and interference of the mulch with growth from the base.

  • Extremely overgrown shrubs with large woody bases may not respond well to rejuvenation pruning.

  • Shrubs with a lot of dead branches will not respond well to rejuvenation pruning.  As a rule of thumb, if more than one-third of the branches are woody, without healthy foliage, the shrub will probably not respond.

  • Some shrubs are structurally more like small trees with only one or a few primary trunks.  They include several Viburnum and Euonymus species, and shrubby forms of Rhamnus (buckthorn).  Don’t cut these shrubs to the ground.  Prune by thinning branches back to a side branch.

  • Lilac cultivars budded onto common lilac rootstocks should not be cut to the ground. Regrowth will be common lilac rather than the selected cultivar.

Replacement

Shrubs that have been repeatedly sheared often become woody and filled with dead twigs. The best option may be to replace them.  On many commercial sites, labor issues prohibit routine pruning.  When shrubs become overgrown they are simply replaced as a low maintenance alternative.

Shrubs can also be overwhelmed by weedy invaders seeded by birds, squirrels or wind. For example: Common Buckthorn, (Rhamnus cartartica), Walnut (Juglans spp.), and Elm (Ulmus spp.).  If routine clearing of these invading woody species is not done, the original shrubs may be compromised or lost. Replacement may again be needed.


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Additional Information

CMG GardensNotes on pruning

Books (available from the International Society of Arboriculture)

  • An Illustrated Guide to Pruning, Third Edition. Edward F Gilman. Cengage Learning. 2011
  • ANSI A300 Pruning Standards, Part 1. American National Standards Institute. 2008
  • Best Management Practices (Revised 2008). Edward Gilman and Sharon Lilly. International Society of Arboriculture. 2008.

Web


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Authors: David Whiting (CSU Extension) with Robert Cox and Carol O'Meara (CSU Extension), and Carl Wilson (CSU Extension, retired). Artwork by David Whiting, unless otherwise notes: used by permission.

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  • Copyright. 2010-14. Colorado Master Gardener Program, Colorado State University Extension. All Rights Reserved. CMG GardenNotes may be reproduced without change or additions, for nonprofit educational use.

Revised October 2014

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