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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 Feb. 18:

It's wet to start the week. When you do get outside, between or after storms, concentrate on damage control:

* Keep storm drains and gutters clear of debris.

* Clean up tree debris knocked down by wind and rain.

* Where did the water flow in your garden? Make notes where revisions are necessary.

* Are any trees leaning? See disturbances in the ground or lawn around their base? Time to call an arborist before the tree topples.

* Dump excess water out of pots.

* Indoors, start peppers, tomatoes and eggplant from seed.

* Lettuce and other greens also can be started indoors from seed.

* Got bare-root plants? Put their roots in a bucket of water until outdoor soil dries out. Or pot them up in 1- or 5-gallon containers. In April, transplant the plant, rootball and all, into the garden.

* Browse garden websites and catalogs. It’s not too late to order for spring and summer.

* Show your indoor plants some love. Dust leaves and mist to refresh.

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