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Over the Garden Fence

Expected and unexpected spring pruning

Given our milder winter, gardeners may be surprised with the need to do some pruning on shrubs that are typically considered hardy in our area. It is not uncommon to find a bit of winter dieback where last years’ growth was actively growing late in the summer or where we got a bit carried away and fertilized too late in the season. The tips and ends of those branches were not able to harden off in time to survive the winter.

This spring, now that the shrubs are actively growing, we are seeing branches that never leafed out even though there were buds produced in 2019. One early indicator of trouble were those flowering shrubs that were not as full as last year. Flower buds are never as hardy as foliage buds so that is not a big issue. Further inspection though saw entire branches that failed to come back. This is where that unexpected pruning comes in. If those branches are dead, there is no point in leaving them on the shrub. Make good clean pruning cuts when you do prune them out. This might wait until you are doing your regular pruning after the shrubs have finished blooming.

There is a theory that even though those branches on the shrubs and perennials were alive last summer, they just did not recover well enough to make it through last winter.

On to an expected pruning project. Brambles (such as raspberries) are unique in that they have a perennial root system, yet those canes only live two years. At the end of the second year, they naturally die. This is true for those brambles that give us a summer crop and those that give us a fall crop and another the following spring.

If you did not get last season’s dead canes pruned last fall, that is the first thing you can do. Once the dead canes are gone, then you get to see the new growth for 2020. Of that growth, we are going to thin out the small diameter (those smaller than a pencil in diameter) and weak canes to allow all the energy to flow into this years’ fruiting canes and the remaining vegetative canes, which will bear the flowers and fruit in 2021.

While you are pruning, keep an eye out for another group of plants that may be missing in action or need additional care, in the perennial beds. Some have emerged with enthusiasm, while others are delayed, or worse, never came up at all. There really is no pruning to be done here, but weak plants would benefit from a light fertilization to aid in recovery. And, do not forget to water them during dry spells this summer.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.