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Reinvigorate that perennial with pruning

Leggy salvia bush
Look how leggy this “Hot Lips” salvia has become, even though it’s in a warm spot with plenty of sun. Time to prune it back. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Winter’s the best time to reshape those garden reliables

Pity the blooming perennial. Once in the ground, it’s considered so reliable that it’s essentially ignored. The gardener gets busy planting annuals, seeding vegetables and spraying fruit trees. The needy bloomers, such as roses, get attention, too.

Meanwhile the salvia pushes out flowers, attracting bees and other pollinators. This goes on for years, perhaps, until the gardener happens to focus on it. “Wow, that plant has really gotten leggy, and doesn’t bloom as much.” So the perennial is pulled out, tossed in the green waste bin, and the cycle starts over.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And the answer is simple: Whack it back during the winter.

Many other perennials take care of themselves by dying back to the ground in the winter. My coneflowers always freak me out a little when they do this; they always return.

Shrub pruned to just a few inches tall
Here’s the same salvia after lopper pruning. I then took my pruning
shears, with some finer control, to the dead stubs at the base.

But the salvias, buddleias and other common woody shrubs do better with a hard pruning in winter.

Quentyn Young, manager of Fair Oaks Boulevard Nursery and a master gardener, gave a great Zoom presentation on pruning woody shrubs at a recent online meeting of the Sacramento County master gardeners.

Here’s his list of popular woody perennials that can and should be pruned hard now:

— Abutilon. This beauties can get quite leggy, he says.

— Buddleia (butterfly bush). These can grow 4 feet in a year, so cut to the ground or at least to 2 feet tall.

— Callicarpa (beautyberry).

— Summersweet ( Clethra alnifolia).

— Caryopteris (bluebeard).

— Cotinus (smokebush).

— Crape myrtle. These ubiquitous bushes/trees bloom much better on new wood, Young says.

— Ornamental elderberry.

— Chaste tree ( Vitex agnus castus) Remove one-third to one-half of the bush.

— Mock orange (Philadelphus virginalis).

— Nandina (heavenly bamboo).

— Podocarpus (fern pine).

— Sages (salvia), including pineapple sage. They can go almost to the ground.

Important to note: Anything flowering now or due to bloom in spring should not be pruned until after bloom. These plants include camellias, lilacs, loropetalum, winter daphne, witch hazel and flowering quince.

Evergreen “foundation” plants can also benefit from winter pruning or at least shaping, Young noted. This group includes photinia, escallonia, pittosporum and euonymous. Woody herbs such as lavender also should be reshaped in winter.

The Sacramento master gardeners filmed a helpful video about pruning woody sages for Harvest Day last summer. It addresses both summer and winter pruning. Check it out here:

Kathy Morrison Hellesen is a newly minted Sacramento County master gardener.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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