To prune or not to prune?

By: Nancy Olsen - Bladen County Cooperative Extension

Pruning is often puzzling to many gardeners. Some plants bloom on old wood and some on new, and it’s important to know the difference.

Here’s a guide for what to do now and what to do later this spring.

Spring flowering wood plants

Azaleas, forsythias, dogwoods and spireas all bloom on old wood in the spring, which means they develop flower buds the summer before they bloom. Though some people think this time of year is the time to prune, it’s not. If you prune spring-flowering plants now, you’ll lose flowers.

The time to prune azaleas, forsythias, dogwoods, spireas and other spring-flowering plans is after they have bloomed and the flowers have faded.

Shaping spring-flowering plants

Shaping spring-flowering plants in February and early spring will not harm them, even though you will lose some flowers. To shape azaleas, prune vigorous shoots back to the average height of the plant. Let forsythias grow to their natural height and weeping form.

On mature plants only, thin out one-third of the older canes to the ground to open up the plant.

Summer flowering woody plants

Summer flowering plants such as crapemyrtle and butterfly bush bloom on new wood, which means they will not develop flower buds until they have put out new leaves.

However, you don’t want to prune in fall because pruning activates new growth that could become damaged by the cold. The best time to prune these plants is late February or early March.

Shaping summer flowering woody plants

Crapemyrtles do not need to be pruned for improved flowering. The practice of topping crapemyrtles is a detriment to the plant and Extension’s horticulturalist’s strongly recommend against topping plants. It is beneficial to remove any sprouts at the base, and keep the plant at three to five trunks. To increase light reception throughout the plant, remove some of the inner branches.

To maintain bloom all summer and into the fall, trim off flower heads as the flowers fade. Let crapemyrtles grow to their natural height. If you want flowers to stay at head height, choose the low-growing varieties.

Buddleia or butterfly bush should be trained to five or seven stems and should be topped (one of the few woody plants you can do this to) to about two feet off the ground in early spring.

Shade trees, evergreens and fruit trees

Shade trees such as maples and oaks can be pruned at any time of the year, except in the spring. However, avoid unnecessary pruning such as topping of shade trees, and allow them to grow to their natural height.

Prune evergreens in late February if you want to encourage new growth. Prune in June if you want to control growth.

Prune fruit trees in late February when flower buds start to open and during the summer to remove sprouts and other vigorous shoots.

The Bladen County Cooperative Extension office, 910-862-4591, can help you with your yard needs or come by the office 450 Smith Circle Dr. in Elizabethtown.

Nancy Olsen is a horticulture agent with the Bladen County Cooperative Extension Office. She can be reached at

Nancy Olsen

Bladen County Cooperative Extension