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Pruning Flowering Shrubs
by Niki Jabbour
by Niki Jabbour


Niki Jabbour is an Ornamental Horticulturist and a writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Fertilized by sea breezes, her gardens are comprised of a colourful mixture of perennials, annuals, herbs and flowering shrubs, with a few patches of clover and chickweed thrown in for good measure.

A member of the Garden Writers Association Niki is also the weekly gardening columnist for the Halifax Daily News and the Chester Clipper.

June 5, 2016

Pruning is an essential part of maintaining a healthy landscape and is simply the removal of part of a plant to control size, encourage growth or remove unwanted branches. Generally most shrubs look best if allowed to maintain their natural forms and random shearing, which can remove flowerbuds should be avoided. When a shrub has been pruned well, it should be difficult to tell that it was pruned at all.


• To improve the health of a plant – Removing dead, damaged or diseased wood will help limit or prevent the spread of a problem. By pruning out crossing or rubbing branches, you can help thwart future damage. Thinning the branches of an overcrowded shrub will also allow more air and sun to reach the centre of the plant, reducing the risk of disease.

• To control or maintain size – Occasional pruning will keep your shrubs tidy and in proportion to your garden.

• To rejuvenate older shrubs – As many types of shrubs mature, their growth may become leggy or unattractive if not kept in check. Proper pruning will help return these overgrown plants to a more manageable size and desirable form.


When it comes to pruning, timing is very important. The general rule is that:

• Spring flowering shrubs, such as forsythia and lilacs, should be pruned as soon as they have finished blooming. Their flowers are formed on ‘old’ wood, which was produced the previous season.

• Summer or autumn flowering shrubs, such as potentilla, bloom on ‘new’ wood from the current season’s growth and should be pruned during the dormant season in late winter or very early spring.

• However, if a shrub is very overgrown or there is dead, damaged or diseased wood, then the health of the plant should take precedence over the desire for flowers and it may be pruned at any time of the year.


• When pruning shrubs, there are two basic types of cuts to consider: heading cuts and thinning cuts.

• Heading cuts can be made to selectively reduce plant size and encourage growth in a certain direction by pruning to a specific bud.

• Thinning cuts originate at the base of the plant and can help maintain the natural form of the shrub, while allowing air and sunlight to reach the centre of the plant. Usually the oldest branches are cut back to encourage new branch production.

• Begin by thinning out dead, crossing, overcrowded and wayward branches, cutting back to the base. Once that is completed, you can make any necessary heading cuts to the branches to shape the plant, pruning above an outward facing bud to encourage outward growth.

• Be sure to make your heading cuts correctly to prevent damaging the buds. For heading cuts, prune about one-half centimeter above the bud, sloping the cut downwards and away from it.

• To avoid unnecessary plant stress, never remove more than one-third of a shrub’s growth.

• To restore the form or rejuvenate an older shrub, remove one-third of the oldest canes by pruning them down to ground level every year for three years.

Tools of the Trade

When purchasing pruning tools, select high quality products, which will be more durable and comfortable to use than their cheaply made counterparts. Keep your tools in good condition by sharpening the blades regularly and coating them with lubricant to repel rust.

• Hand Pruners – Hand pruners are great for tackling small pruning jobs in the garden such as trimming roses, small shrubs and deadheading perennials. There are two main types of hand pruners: bypass and anvil. Bypass pruners have sharp, curved scissor-like blades that overlap, while anvil pruners have a straight blade that chops the materials against a metal plate. Bypass pruners are best for cutting live wood that is less than 1 ½ centimeters in diameter, while anvil pruners are ideal for cutting dead wood of a similar diameter. Most gardeners tend to use bypass pruners for most of their small pruning jobs.

• Lopping Shears – Lopping shears are also available in bypass and anvil styles. Again, bypass is used for cutting live wood, while anvil blades are best for dead wood. The long handles of lopping shears provide leverage, allowing for quick and easy removal of branches up to 4 centimeters in diameter.

• Hedge Shears – As the name implies, hedge shears are most often used to keep hedges tidy and thick. They shear off all plant growth in a straight line, encouraging a profusion of outer twigs. They are also very useful in cutting back the dead foliage of ornamental grasses in early spring.

• Pruning Saws – Pruning saws are great for removing large branches or stems that are too big for hand pruners or lopping shears. Their blades are specially designed to cut live wood and will not get gummed up by tree sap like a regular saw.

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