As winter recedes, we often see plenty of work to be done in yards and landscapes. Some of this is simple clean-up: When the snow melts, we may find debris blown in during a storm, broken limbs and maybe even a few stray holiday decorations. But there’s also more rewarding horticultural work to be done in late winter.
One important task is pruning. Late winter is a great time to prune summer flowering plants. These include Hydrangea paniculata, H. arborescens and Hibiscus syriacus. If you can wait until the plants have started to break bud, you’ll know exactly how much winter damage you need to prune away. If you can’t wait, it won’t hurt the plant to be pruned earlier. Just be ready to do a touch-up trim if you find some dead branches.
[Related: Late winter: The best time to prune trees]
However, don’t touch spring flowering plants like Forsythia or Syringa. Leave summer blooming Hydrangea macrophylla alone, too. If you prune these plants now, the spring flowers are gone for the season (unless you have a reblooming variety). But don’t prune the rebloomers in spring, either. They will bloom at the same time as standard varieties, and cutting them back just reduces their appeal. When in doubt, don’t prune. You won’t hurt a plant with untimely pruning, but you may regret that Edward Scissorhands moment when everyone else’s Chaenomeles are blooming but yours aren’t.
Late winter is a good time to do more intensive pruning, too. Sometimes plants that have gotten really overgrown will benefit from a rejuvenation pruning. This means cutting all or most of the branches down to the ground. If a plant has been damaged by snow load or wildlife, this can be a good way to salvage a favorite landscape item. It may take the plant a season or two to regain its form, and flowering can be compromised, but this technique is a good way to keep an established plant in a landscape.
A less drastic option for plants that are not quite so overgrown is renewal pruning. This involves cutting about a third of the branches down to the ground each year. Yes, it can reduce flowering, but the result is a more appealing form through the entire year.
Finally, late winter is a great time to evaluate the overall landscape. You won’t be distracted by flashy flowers or foliage. This is where you can see the bare bones of a design, so to speak. Gaps that won’t be filled by annuals or perennials later in the season can be easily spotted, as can hardscaping that needs attention. If the landscape doesn’t have anything to recommend it in late winter, consider adding some winter interest plants to the space. After all, winter comes every year—plan for it in the landscape just like you do your wardrobe. A really great parka is worth every penny, and so is a plant that adds some bright color to a gray winter day.