Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


May 5, 2014

Plateau Gardening: Evaluate winter damage before you prune

CROSSVILLE — By the beginning of May, the typical last frost date is past in most parts of Tennessee (May 10 is the last frost date for Cumberland County). It is now time to do corrective pruning of winter-damaged landscape plants.

When Tennessee homeowners did a 2014 late-winter or early-spring inspection of trees and shrubs in their yards, many found broadleaf evergreens with winter drought-stress injuries caused by frozen soil. Leaf drop was wide-spread. In some cases, flower buds on early spring bloomers withered and produced no flowers or far fewer than normal. (As long as cold winters with frozen ground is not a persistent trend for our area, expect those plants to go back their typical bloom pattern in subsequent years.)

If your landscape is like mine, you may have deciduous shrubs that suffered this winter as well. If you see no foliage (or just a few dried leaves) on shrubs that normally would be leafed-out by now, try bending a branch tip with your fingers. Dead wood will snap off. The usual remedy is to cut back to "green' (live) wood. In situations where what remains of a once-beautifully shaped shrub will be extremely short and lopsided, you might opt for replacement rather than extreme pruning.

Most small tree and shrub species can be pruned similarly, but a few have unique growth habits that require special handling. Know what type of plant you are dealing with and the best pruning method for it before making drastic cuts. After evaluating the extent of the injuries and determining replacement is a better option, reflect on whether you want to purchase new nursery stock of the same or a similar species or go with something different.

Since autumn is generally a better time to install trees and shrubs in Tennessee than late spring, perhaps cutting back to healthy wood now (to prevent plant diseases infecting injured areas then sickening the whole shrub or tree) would be the wiser course of action. That buys some time during which you can re-evaluate replacement as the plant renews itself this spring and summer following the trim job.      

Rhododendrons: I have a couple large hardy pink-flowering rhododendrons at the edge of my woods that keep their foliage year round. They have many dead branch tips but the main bodies of both plants have lots of healthy green leaves. The rhodies opened a few stunted blooms by the end of April. I cut off the dead stuff and did spring fertilization.

Nandinas: I grow both tall Nandina domestica (variety unknown) evergreen shrubs, which if left untrimmed would grow 6 or 8 feet tall, and the dwarf Nandina domestica “Firepower,” a low growing (two- to three-feet tall and as wide) shrub with colorful foliage that changes with the seasons. The Nanadinas are among foundation plantings at the front of the house. Both the tall and dwarf varieties dropped almost every leaf over the winter. Atop the naked stalks of the taller Nandina a sparse sprinkling of dark, withered fruit (instead of the usual bright-red berries) hang from branch tips. Since tall berry-producing Nandina varieties drop lower leaves on stems as they grow taller with age and don’t respond to tip shearing by forming side branches and becoming bushy as other broadleaf shrubs do, they need to be cut back severely.

I pruned about half the stalks to within inches of the plant’s base and left the others about 12 inches high. I won’t trim these shrubs again for at least two years. Then I plan to switch back to the typical springtime tall Nandina pruning ritual of cutting one third of the tallest canes back to ground level. I also remove some of the green leaves and red winter-time berries to use in Christmas holiday decorating. Similarly, I cut about one half of the stems back to the ground and left half of the stalks 6 to 8 inches tall on the “Firepower” Nandinas. Both types of Nandinas should get a spring feeding of slow-release all-purpose shrub fertilizer. Knockout rose details next week.

• • •

Plateau Gardening written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (484-6743) answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae (

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