Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2005
Regional Report

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This cotoneaster has been renewal pruned and will send out beautiful new growth this year.

Renewal Pruning is the Ultimate Type of Spring Cleaning

While many tasks in the garden provide a healthy sense of accomplishment, rejuvenating an overgrown shrub makes you feel like an artist. Pruning a shrub is a lot like cleaning out a closet. It makes everything tidy, removes the old stuff, and gives a great sense of satisfaction.

Transforming a rangy, ugly mock orange or dogwood into a thing of beauty is easier than you might think. Most shrubs benefit from regular renewal or rejuvenation pruning. I renewal prune my redtwig dogwoods every winter and use the trimmings for holiday decorating. This pruning forces new, bright red, healthy growth every year.

Rejuvenating a multistemmed shrub involves removing one-fifth to one-third of the oldest and largest stems at ground level, which encourages vigorous growth from the ground and makes the shrub full from the bottom up. Selective pruning also improves the shrub's flowering capacity by allowing more light to reach the interior of the plant.

The Three-Year Rejuvenation Plan
Old shrubs that haven't been regularly pruned may need complete rejuvenation (a three-year process) while young plants will only require light renewal pruning each year. When a shrub is unhealthy or stressed, however, renewal pruning should be avoided. Spend the growing season bringing the shrub back to vigor, and then prune in late fall.

One of the most important aspects of renewal pruning is using the right tools. A pair of good pruning shears and a sharp pruning saw are as important as the process. Jagged cuts and frustration from making a tool do something not intended can ruin the outcome.

When getting ready to prune, assess a shrub's shape and growth tendencies. Since you have to work with what is there, study the shrub carefully. Is it upright or spreading? Do more of the branches come from the ground or from forks above the ground?

Begin pruning by removing any diseased or damaged branches. Next, select up to one third of the oldest stems and cut them at ground level with long-handled loppers or a pruning saw. Try to remove stems from all sides of the shrub to keep it somewhat symmetrical. Remember to periodically step back and look at the shape of the entire plant as you are pruning.

With an old shrub, it's tempting to jump in and start cutting, but caution and patience will produce a better plant. It is important not to remove any more than one-third of the shrub at a time in order to leave enough leaf surface to provide food for the plant.

After removing the large stems, prune out any crossing branches, open the crown to more sunlight by thinning side branches, and shorten other stems to produce a pleasing shape. Step back one last time and do any final shaping.

The job is finally finished for this year. Next year follow the same process, removing another third of the old branches and continuing to shape the plant. Remove the remainder of the old stems in the third year, finishing the renewal. From this point on, annually remove only one-fourth to one-fifth of the oldest stems to keep the plant well shaped and blooming. Although most renewal pruning can be done now, wait to prune the early bloomers until after they bloom this spring. That way you can enjoy as many blossoms as possible.

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