Frances Tophill's guide to February pruning
Get summer-flowering shrubs back in shape ready for spring, with help from Frances Tophill. Plus she shows how to prune elder (sambucus) to keep shrubs compact and healthy
The garden in February is a place of hope and promise of things to come, though it can still be bitterly cold. This is a month of tidying up in earnest and pruning the last of your deciduous shrubs or trees before their new leaves start to emerge.
Summer-flowering shrubs that flower on the current season’s growth, like Buddleja davidii and perovskia, should be cut back now. Also cut beech and hornbeam hedging, but avoid clipping tender shrubs like melianthus, choisya or tender lavenders until April. Rose pruning can be done now, including climbing roses, which may need tying in if winter storms have blown them loose.
Cut back your winter display plants once they have gone over. So large, leggy mahonia can be pruned to encourage a bushier form; winter-flowering spindle (Euonymous europaeus) can be tidied up, as can chimonanthus. Dogwoods and willows can be cut back to a stool or stump now, too. It’s also a great time to prune deciduous trees like lime (Tilia), elder (Sambucus) and Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica).
More winter pruning advice:
Plants to prune now:
Late winter is the time to sort out shrubs such as mahonia and shrubby cornus in time for new spring growth. Reshaping and removing weak stems will help to create strong plants.
To prevent mahonia getting leggy, select a few of the oldest shoots to cut to about 15cm from the ground.
More like this
Cut shrubby types like Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ low at the end of winter to promote bright new stems next year.
Cut out old stems of gooseberries and create a ‘bowl’ at the centre for healthy growth. Pull up and cut stems that have rooted into the soil.
Cornus controversa and cornus kousa
Cornus kousa is pictured here. Only lightly prune out diseased, damaged, dead or crossing shoots or those heading in the wrong direction.
- Box: Leave box to be cut in late-spring or summer when the weather is drier
- Cherry and other prunus: These are susceptible to silver leaf if pruned in the winter so delay pruning until summer
- Melianthus: Leave the stems of melianthus untouched until April as this shrub is tender. It will regenerate after a hard prune
- Cercis canadensis: Minimal pruning is required, and this can be done after Cercis canadensis has finished flowering in the spring
- Hydrangea petiolaris: Cut Hydrangea petiolaris immediately after flowering in summer, unlike other hydrangeas, which are pruned now
- Kerria: After flowering in spring is the best time to prune kerria, removing lower stems right to the ground
Step-by-step: Pruning sambucus
Elders are a wonderful group of plants, both for ornamental and practical uses. We all know of elderflower cordial, that delicious summer drink made from elder flowers, but less known is the traditional use of elder berries for immunity boosting, particularly for colds and viruses. If using the berries, which appear in early autumn, make sure they are cooked as they cause stomach upsets if eaten raw. Sambucus can be small trees or large shrubs and make beautiful specimen plants, offering attractive leaves, flowers and fruits. They are a mass of blooms in early summer and some like Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ have intricate purple foliage. Pruning sambucus in the way described here looks drastic but the plant will soon recover and stays compact.
Examine your specimen. Step back, look at it in its setting. What is it hiding or enhancing, and how will this inform your pruning? Then take a close look. Are there any diseased stems or damaged branches with wounds or cankers that need removing? With all pruning work, keep stepping back and checking as you go.
Cut back long sambucus stems using clean and sharp loppers and/or secateurs to just above a node. You might see a bulge, or leaf scar that indicates where the node is, and on newer growth you will see buds to cut above. Remove old or weak shoots and congested branches.
Keep going, cutting back stems until you have created a well-formed low framework, with no weak stems at the base, from which new, vigorous growth can shoot once spring starts. Shredding the cut-off branches before composting will speed up decomposition.
Also prune this way:
Cutting back hard rejuvenates certain shrubs. It prevents them from becoming leggy and promotes healthy new growth from the base as well as abundant flowers. This technique can be used on various shrubs, including those listed below:
- Buddleja davidii can be cut back now. Long shoots will soon appear from the base in spring. This also applies to B. x weyeriana, B. fallowiana and B. salviifolia
- Hardy fuchsias can be cut back in March or April once danger of frost has passed
- Spiraea flower at different times and should be pruned accordingly. Spiraea japonica produces flowers on growth produced the same year so can be cut back in early spring to around 30cm from the base
When pruning anything I always go by one rule – look twice, cut once. Imagine the shape you want to create and focus on that, rather than the parts you want to get rid of. Think about the direction of the buds you have left, and where the new shoots will grow from them. The buds and branches you leave on the plant will dictate its growth, so choose them carefully when making your cuts. This will ensure that after growth begins again in spring, you’ll have a well-shaped shrub to enhance your garden.