Sometimes we cut even when it's the "wrong" time
Budbreak usually calls a halt to pruning because cutting then
can net a lot of wild new growth.
However, in an unusual year when spring starts early and our
late winter/early spring cuts aren't done, we often break this rule
(list of plants we've cut in
The why's behind the rule and the transgression
Here's a little bit about why we usually halt, and what happens
when we don't, so you can make your own decisions about putting
away or carrying on with your pruners.
Tip buds rule
As the shoots that formed last fall fill with water and
elongate, a powerful surge of growth follows and many strong
chemicals are produced in that growing bud. The chemicals in those
tiny buds -- we call them plant hormones -- will direct the entire
plant's energy into new shoots. The uppermost and outermost buds
commandeer the lion's share of energy and suppress the growth of
buds lower on their branch. This keeps the plant growing up and out
in an orderly fashion.
If we come along and cut off the tip buds after they begin
growing, the order that's just been established is scrambled. Buds
below the tip that "thought" they were subordinate are suddenly
released from control. They don't grow evenly, but sprint and
compete with one another. Dormant buds the plant was holding in
reserve may begin growing, too. The result is bushiness and some
uneven or unexpected growth.
This may be fine if you're growing a hedge or you don't mind
coming back to prune again to sort out the craziness. Yet you can
lose ground on long term projects if it's a tree you've been
Cut in bud, plan to cut again
You will probably have to revisit any plant you cut during its
first flush of growth, to cut off uneven growth and thin out places
where multiple shoots developed instead of the one you wanted. Do
this after the new shoots have begun to harden.
If you don't want a lot of new shoots to form because your
intent is to shape and limit growth, don't prune during budbreak
and shoot elongation.
Shoot elongation. In a conifer it's also called "candling."
Clipping the candles can shorten the year's growth but does not
stop the increase in height and width. To restrict an evergreen's
growth, see the pruning done in Reduce a Spruce and Dwarf Cut to
Size: Blue globe spruce.
What do we cut when we break the rule?
Spring came 'way early for us this year, catching us with late
winter's work incomplete. We've just cut plants listed below even
though they'd already broken bud. We went ahead and cut because
what we want from these plants is vigorous new canes and we'll
still get that. We may see more branching than we think is ideal
but chances are no one else will even notice. We may also have
more, smaller flowers rather than fewer, larger flowers on fewer,
Beautyberry (Japanese species that blooms on new wood)
Burning bush (Euonymus alatus)
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) (take a look)
Dwarf spirea (Spiraea bumalda, S. japonica)
Potentilla (P. fruticosa)
Roses (mostly climbers and hybrid teas but some shrubby species,
too; check out the discussion at the Forum regarding the timing
on rose pruning)
Snowball- and panicle hydrangeas (H. arborescens and
Ural false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia)
won't hear us say, "Oh you poor butterfly bush!"
Please do cut that butterfly bush way down unless you want a
hoary, tangled, earlier blooming, 10' monster in your garden. Don't
be afraid to cut because "It's leafing out, and it kept all its
leaves from last year." The presence of those leaves on mild days
in winter allowed the plant to produce and stash even more starch
than usual. Cut hard now, it'll come back like gangbusters. So go
ahead and cut it to the ground for clean, new growth that will
bloom in late summer when you will most appreciate the color.
Below: Thank you, fellow Detroit Zoo Adopt-a-Gardener Tom Theoret, for
helping us demonstrate the proper attitude to take with a butterfly
bush this time of year!
Tom stacked all the cuttings where we could use them to weave into a
Now isn't that more fun than the way we originally tried to
capture "What to do with a butterfly bush? (Below.) Which amounted
to nothing more than a photo with, then a photo without...