Pruning Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Do as I say, not as I do!

The most common questions I’m asked have to do with pruning – or, as we say around here, “Can I just whack it, or what?” No matter the season, everybody wants to know if (and how) they should cut back overgrown plants. And who can blame them? What’s more satisfying than physically taming a wasteland, stepping back from a perfectly-shaped behemoth, surveying a mountain of conquered brush and vines, and wiping a forehead laced with scratches?

I always feel like such a party pooper when I offer all of my standard cautions – “If you cut that now, you’ll cut off next spring’s flowers . . . you’ll invite disease . . . you’ll cause a flush of growth that will be killed by the cold . . . .” It seems like I’m always advising against cutting plants back.

Well, here we are in late winter, and for once in the year, when asked if it’s a good time to prune, the answer is “Yes!” For many shrubs and trees, late winter/early spring is a great time to do large-scale pruning and rejuvenating. The bare branches will be easier to see, wounds will heal with less risk of disease, and plants won’t respond with the same crazy flush of growth that they would have during the growing season. It isn’t perfect for every plant of course, but if you’re only going to prune once a year, now’s a good time.

Poor spindly thing!

Taking advantage of the season and a rare warm day, I headed outdoors with my pruning shears in the hopes of cutting back my Lady Banks’ rose. What I found were the startling consequences of not practicing what I preach! You see, my Lady Banks’ rose grows faster than kudzu, and all last summer and fall I was constantly (against my own better judgment) cutting back the large branches that threatened to overtake the side entrance of my house. I knew I shouldn’t be pruning so late in the season, but I did it anyway – my house has been on the market, and I was willing to take risks in order to keep things looking neat.

What I found, here in late winter, was that my rose was covered in tender, shriveled dead growth. In response to pruning last fall, the plant had sent out a flush of very soft tendrils, and the freezing winter weather zapped them dead. To make things worse, the damage wasn’t just to the new growth – the entire plant was stressed. In fact, as I was working on the plant, almost every leaf fell off, leaving a very naked, cold-looking vine against my porch column. I very sadly did a much larger pruning than I had intended, to try to encourage the plant to start afresh in spring, then I swept up all those fallen leaves and entertained both the chagrin of disobeying my own advice and the satisfaction that my advice had indeed been correct!

If I had to learn this lesson, I’m glad I learned it with Lady Banks, because I think she has a good chance of a spring recovery. I have, however, filed this away in my brain under the category of “Lessons Learned From Mistakes,” because those are the lessons that stick the best. This year I’ll keep my pruning shears under control!

Further Information


    • Hi, Gene!
      Some things you can only determine in person.
      We suggest contacting your local Master Gardeners association for a quick visit.
      Master gardeners make house calls and provide free advice to local people.
      Thanks for your question, and good luck!


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