Shrubs are Shrubby

A shrub is a shrubby, woody plant. (Now, that’s profound.) Numerous stems originating at or near ground level are what make a plant shrubby. Usually, no one stem ever gets the upper hand over other stems. For most shrubs, you need to get out there with your pruners to snip and lop every year.

How to prune a shrub depends on when it flowers and on what age stems provide the most ornamental effect. Does the shrub flower early in the spring, or later in the summer? Does it flower on old stems, on those that grew last year, or on new shoots?

Tree peony bloom

Tree peony

And one more thing before we dive in: Here, I’m writing about pruning shrubs growing informally. Let’s shelve pruning hedges and, because they vary so much in their pruning needs, roses for another time.

Deciduous shrubs can be put into one of four categories according to the age of stems that flower or otherwise look their best. Here are some bare-bone guidelines for each of these categories. In my book, The Pruning Book, from which this is excerpted, I offer more detailed guidance with extensive lists of plants in each category (and, of course, details on pruning hedges, roses, and just about any other plant or pruning technique you can think of. Really.)

Old Looks Best

Deciduous shrubs whose old wood flowers or looks best. Included within this category are shrubs — witch hazel, rose-of-sharon, tee peony are examples — that naturally build up a permanent framework of branches. Rarely do they send up new suckers at or near ground level. These shrubs flower directly on older wood, or from shoots that grow from older wood.Witch hazel Grouping plants always entails a certain degree of arbitrariness, and because of their disinclination to sucker, a few plants in this category could also be considered “trees,” especially if deliberately trained to one or a few trunks..

These shrubs are the easiest shrubs to prune: mostly, just don’t!

Some Annual Pruning Helps

Deciduous shrubs that flower best on one-year-old wood. Because they all flower only on wood that grew the previous season, annual pruning is needed to stimulate new growth, each year, for the following year’s flowers.

Renewal prune each year, removing the very oldest stems to make way for younger, floriferous stems to step in and replace older stems. Cutting a few stems low in the shrubs is also less work than shearing, and creates a more graceful, fountain-like growth habit, and keeps the plant low, neat, and abundantly flowering.
Renewal pruning
Prune those shrubs that flower early in the season right after their blossoms fade. But now, or just before growth begins, is the time to prune those shrubs that flower from summer onward. Pruning early-flowering shrubs right after they bloom allows you to enjoy their blossoms, but still leaves enough time for shoots to grow and ripen wood sufficiently for next season’s blooms.

The one-year-old shoots on which flowers are borne may grow mainly from older stems up in the shrub, or else mostly from ground level. The location of these flowering shoots determines pruning technique, so I have subdivided this category into two groups, grouped plants accordingly, and follow with instructions for each. 

Shrubs such as lilac, forsythia, and mock orange flower best on one-year-old wood originating from older wood up in the plant.

Lilac flowering habit

Lilac flower budsPeer in at the base of the mature plant and you’ll notice wood of various ages growing up from ground level. Begin pruning by cutting away near ground level, some of the very oldest stems. Those oldest stems are also the tallest ones, so these first cuts quickly lower the plant.Plants blooming on 1-year old stems up in plant 

Each year also remove at ground level a portion of the youngest stems so they don’t crowd with age.

Abelia and kerria are among those shrubs that flower best on one-year-old wood originating at ground level; they need more drastic pruning. Every year cut away all wood more than one-year-old, either right to ground level or else to a vigorous branch originating low on the plant. You can tell the age of a stem by its thickness and, with many plants, by the color or texture of the bark. Kerria blossoms

Blossoms on New, Growing Stems

Deciduous shrubs whose current growth flowers or looks best: Here we have shrubs valued only for their new growth. And yes, in some cases we value the plant for the young stems themselves.

Red-osier dogwood stems in winter

Red-osier dogwood stems in winter

This group of shrubs, which includes red-osier dogwood (whose young, red stems “ignite” with winter cold), butterfly bush, New Jersey tea, and Hills-of-Snow hydrangea, is very easy to prune: simply lop the whole plant down to the ground just as buds are swelling. Butterfly bush


Time for Renovation?

  You perhaps have inherited, with your property, a neglected, old shrub offering you a tangled mass of stems, an awkward posture, and few flowers. Can this shrub be brought back to its former glory? Probably.

You have two options in renovating this shrub. The first is the drastic one: you merely lop the whole plant to within one foot of the ground just before growth begins for the season. The plant won’t be pretty for a few years but after that you’re on your way to a “new,” shrub, full of blossoms and with a graceful growth habit, a whole new plant from the ground up.

A second option is gradual renovation, removing a couple of the oldest stems each year over a period of four or five years. Although this takes more time, the plant will look decent throughout the recovery period. 

Rather than renovation, you might instead consider capitalizing on your overgrown shrub’s age and venerability by transforming the plant into a picturesque small tree. Not all shrubs make this transition gracefully; devil’s walkingstick, hawthorn, and hazelnut are among those that do. 

Select as trunks two or three of the oldest stems having pleasant form and growing from ground level to as high as the proposed crown of your tree-to-be. Remove all other growth from ground level to the proposed crown. 

Even easier is to let the deer prune for you, in which case the bottom of the crown will be as high as the deer care to reach.

Deer pruned yew

Deer pruned yew

12 replies
  1. Shereen F Rosenthal
    Shereen F Rosenthal says:

    My kerria plant looks pitiful. I pruned it in past. Should I prune it now again or after it blooms? Many branches look partway dead. Best, Shereen Rosenthal

  2. Evan Marks
    Evan Marks says:

    For shrubs like Butterfly Bush, why does one wait until energy has gone into budding before lopping the whole bush to the ground? Would it not make more sense to ‘lop’ it before the season commences?

  3. Deborah Banks
    Deborah Banks says:

    I’m surprised at your recommendation to cut smoke bush to the ground every spring. You mean Cotinus coggygria, right? Mine doesn’t grow all that much in one season. It doesn’t seem to be an obvious candidate for drastic pruning. I don’t understand how this particular shrub benefits from the chop. I’m zone 5a in the Catskills (formerly 4b). Thanks.

    • Lee Reich
      Lee Reich says:

      Perhaps your site is too cold for good growth.Generally, established shrubs respond with vigorous growth to drastic pruning. When pruned to the ground every spring, the vigorous, new growth also sports extra large leaves, which is one decorative effect. The other way to prune smoke bush is hardly at all, in which case you get to enjoy the decorative flowers (the “smoke”). Flowers are sacrificed with the first pruning method.

  4. Jane Boggini
    Jane Boggini says:

    When is the best time to prune fir and spruce, I would like to raise them for cut christmas trees.
    Thanks, Jane

  5. Olivia Steele
    Olivia Steele says:

    Our montauk daisy has broken dormancy and must be moved now. Do we need to water it in its new hole as it is still early April on Cape Cod. Many thanks, Lee!!

    • Lee Reich
      Lee Reich says:

      Yes. When a potted plant is planted in the ground, it needs to be watered just as if it was still in its pot until its roots reach out into surrounding soil.


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