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Prune perennials now for more flowers later.

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05/27/2002
Prune perennials now for more flowers later.

Now through mid-June is a great time to prune many perennials that bloom mid- through late summer. While you may be aghast at the thought of one more pruning task, pruning perennials is so much fun and the rewards so great that I promise you'll become a convert.

Why prune perennials? The reasons are legion. The first is to get more flowers. Pruning perennials with a branching structure (such as asters, Joe Pye weed, etc.) has the same effect as "pinching," where terminals of each stem are removed to cause branching. Where before there would have been one blossom or bunch of blossoms, now there will be two, because you have forced the plant to branch at the pruning point.

As you may have inferred from the above, pruning also creates a bushier, stockier plant. With top-heavy, tall perennials such as boltonia and veronicastrum, which tend to flop as they shoot skyward, this is a distinct advantage. It means you can forget about installing a support for these inherently tall plants.

Pruning also enables you to delay blooming. Why is this an advantage? Say you have a group of five perennials of a single variety. If you like, you can prune part of them only, so that you increase the blooming time-span of that particular massing. You can even use pruning to prolong bloom within one particular plant. Prune only some of the stems--say the ones nearest the front of the border. That way, the stems near the back will bloom first, followed by the stems at the front of the plant. That's what I've done with the tall aster in the photo.

You can also use pruning to change the visual profile of a particular plant. By pruning the stems in front of the clump short, and staggering the stem height toward the back of the plant, you creat a mass of bloom that presents a bigger surface area to the eye. The same plant left to its own devices will present this same view only to low-flying pilots, birds, butterflies, very tall people, or your neighbors looking down on your garden from their second-story window.

This principle can also be applied to an entire grouping of a single perennial. Prune the plants in the front shortest, grading off to the ones in the back, whick you only nip back a little bit.

Not to forget the obvious, perennial pruning can also be used to control the height of a plant that would otherwise grow to tall for your garden or your tastes.

Where do you make your perennial pruning cuts? In principle, just above a leaf node is ideal. But if you have a lot of perennials to prune, don't worry about it. Just snip away. It will still work; you'll just have some stems sticking up above your cuts, which will become imperceptible as the plant branches out and grows.

A word of caution, however, before you go out to give your entire perennial garden a haircut. This only works with perennials that have branching or potentially branching flower stems producing multiple blossoms. Among the good candidates are asters, Joe Pye weeds, heleniums, nepetas, salvias (most), phlox, monardas, malvas, kalimeris, and so on. It will not work on perennials that produce spikes of flowers or blossoms on scapes (stems that only bear flowers). Examples of perennials where pre-bloom pruning will not work include geum (example of a scape), poppies (another scape), lilies, lupines, iris, delphinium, liatris, etc. While this difference may not be apparent at first glance, a bit of practice and reflection will render it obvious.

With that caveat in mind, don't delay in heading out to the garden to shape your perennials to suit your own design. You'll find it's an easy, relaxing, and rewarding task that you would have a hard time referring to as "work."

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Products of Interest:
Champagne perennial pruners

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