“Crape-murder” is a term used to describe the bizarre habit of pruning crape myrtles back annually in a manner that is horticultural blasphemy. I’ve seen heads shake and eyes roll at the mention of it. I don’t like the practice myself; crape myrtles are breathtaking when allowed to grow to their full grace and height. But no matter how you prune them, as long as you prune them at the proper time, they still bloom. The form may be different, but there are blooms, and they are abundant as fireworks on the 4th of July. So, murder might not be the most appropriate description. I think this situation could really pass with a good old southern “bless your heart,” and a firm inward sense of your own horticultural superiority. Rather gardeners, refocus that disapproval to a practice that really deserves it, the pruning atrocities inflicted on spring blooming shrubs.

Forsythias, azaleas, and snowball viburnums are harbingers of spring, and after a long dreary winter, they are welcomed with delight. But what allows them to bloom before it is warm enough to grow new leaves are buds formed in the summer of the previous year’s growth. Those buds stay small, still, and waiting through winter, and when it is time they swell and burst.

 Sometimes new gardeners prune spring bloomers in the winter, cutting off most if not all of those waiting buds. When they don’t bloom in spring, most talk to their mother or grandmother or gardening neighbor and don’t repeat the same mistake the following year. That learning by doing is a natural part of gardening.

What I have no patience for is the pruning of every bush in a landscape into a perfectly round “meatball”. There are some plants that we want to have that form. In formal gardens or plantings with holly or boxwood that shape is appropriate. With anything else, unless your garden theme is spaghetti and meatballs, let the poor plants be. That is not their natural shape, and to maintain it they will have to be pruned constantly, which for our lovely spring bloomers means that flower buds are clipped and clipped and clipped all throughout the summer.

Differing textures and shapes adds depth and interest to the landscape. For evergreens like loropetalum or cleyera, the natural shape is lost with frequent shearing, and repeated shearing can leave them lush on the outside, and hollow on the inside. However, if that is the aesthetic you want, go for it. Really. Just please thin them every now and again. But why would you plant a flowering shrub and then not let it bloom???

 I’ve driven throughout the state this bloom season, and everywhere I turn are rounded azaleas with a paltry handful of flowers trying to peak through, or snowball viburnums with no more than five blooms visible. When spring shrubs bloom, they go all out. Every visible inch is adorned with flowers. Bleak winter is over and spring is here in extravagant color. That is why we plant them. That is why southern springs are synonymous with azaleas. We deny them, and ourselves, their natural beauty by shearing them into conformity.

In some instances, we also lose the form. Forsythia are a bright burst of yellow, but they are planted for their shape as much as their blooms. Branches arch gracefully from the center of the plant back down towards the ground, making it look like a fountain of blooms when it flowers. All of that beauty is lost when pruned incorrectly.

The answer to this problem is pruning spring-blooming shrubs after flowering is completed, thinning instead of shearing, and not touching it again until the same time next year. These shrubs bloom on the previous season’s growth; if they need pruning, doing it right after it finishes blooming will give it the rest of the growing season to put on the new growth that will hold blooms. I say “if” because shrubs don’t have to be pruned every year. They only need it when you want to manage their height. When most people prune, they shear, which is cutting everything back to the same height or the same base shape. Like a haircut. But hair grows from the roots, and branches put new growth on the tips. Pruning to an arbitrary point mid-stem is going to stimulate growth from that point, which results in five or six new stems growing where the one you pruned was growing. Much like a Hydra. That dense growth limits light into the interior and over time that leads to a hollow interior and a thin wrapping of leaves. If you absolutely must have your spring bloomer in a globe shape, because you do get to decide what you like, cut it back further in the spring, let it grow to the size you want it, and maintain it there.

Thinning is better than shearing. Taking a single stem down to node, the point where branching stems, leaves, or buds originate, you promote growth from that node, which is going to be one stem to replace the one you pruned. Ultimately this leads to healthier and more attractive plants. There are a few exceptions; for cane-type shrubs like Forsythia it can be taken down almost completely to the ground every year or so, and trees and tree-form shrubs have some different considerations as well. But for most spring blooming shrubs, you are done pruning. From this point on, all you need to do is nothing. This technique results in less work and more blooms. What more could you want in spring?

Now you know. Save the flowers. Spread the word. Stop the meatballing.

To learn more about pruning techniques, read through UGA Extension Bulletin 961, “Pruning Ornamental Plants in the Landscape”. You can find it at extension.uga.edu/publications.

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