What to Prune in Winter

What to Prune Now in Atlanta – Winter Pruning

In Atlanta’s challenging landscape, with extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, properly timed pruning is critical to keeping your plants healthy, flowering and disease-free. It’s important to know what to prune when.

For almost all plants, winter is an ideal time to prune. Winter pruning is generally focused on correcting problems with growth habit, crossing branches, over-density, etc (known as Structural Pruning). Winter is the time for structural pruning and rejuvenation pruning. If your only concern were for plant health, winter would be the only time you ever pruned.

Where structural / rejuvenation pruning is involved our advice is consistent: if you can stand one season without flowers, we recommend that all heavy pruning take place in winter. Yes, even for Azaleas and Hydrangea Macrophyllas.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Shearing, whether by gas-shears or hand-shears, is not pruning. Shearing of any kind is simply shaping – it provides no benefits to the plant – shearing is only used to achieve the Disney-esque balls, cubes and other topiaries. When shearing is the only pruning technique used, it is similar to painting a fence made from rotting wood. The long-term results will be disappointing.

So, you say, “great information, but what can I prune now? And more important, what should I prune now??”.


pruning gardeniasGardenias and The Old Wood vs. New Wood Debate

As with Hydrangeas, Azaleas and many other plants, there is always debate over whether Gardenias flower on old wood, new wood, or both. Since this is our business every day of the year, we are forced to experiment and test these rules of the garden. Frequently, our pruning schedules are driven by the addition of a new garage or the replacement of a sewer line. We are forced to prune and transplant at the most inopportune times. We have seen the actual results of pruning Azaleas in February, Hydrangea Macrophylla in April and Gardenias all year long.

From our experience, you can prune Gardenias year-around, except the months directly preceding blooms. If you are doing anything substantial, like reducing the size by half or more, we strongly recommend doing it in the midst of winter. Extensive pruning may result in few flowers in the first year, but the plant will be stronger and healthier in the long run.

Basically, Gardenias respond well to proper pruning, almost regardless of the timing. Gardenias in the Atlanta landscape are prime targets of White Flies, and proper pruning is the first weapon you should use against these prolific pests. We prune Gardenias almost year-around to increase light and airflow throughout the plant.



Slower growing than Azaleas and Gardenias, Camellias are slower to recover from heavy, structural pruning. We begin pruning Camellias directly after flowering so they have a full season to recover. As they begin to sprout new growth in spring, we will touch-up any areas that need attention or areas where we need to direct new growth. Camellias tend to respond best to rejuvenation pruning that takes place over several years as opposed to one big event. Camellias will live to 100 years or more, so it’s best to take it slow and easy.


Crape Murder

Crape Murder


Crape Myrtles:

Just don’t. That’s our advice. We have no idea where this bizarre ritual called “Crape Murder” originated, but it is horticultural insanity. Since Crape Myrtles are ornamental trees, cleaning out unhealthy growth, crossing branches and suckers is a good idea. You can even do some light pruning to shape the canopy a bit. But if you might need a saw…. Just Don’t.



No, it’s not really pruning, but if you feel the need to hack something, hack your Liriope. That’s right, scalp it to a nub! It’s labor-intensive so a lot landscape companies are skipping it these days. This removes all of the brown, damaged blades and will cause the plant to completely rejuvenate, resulting in a dramatic improvement.


Small Ornamental trees (other than Crapes):

As with Crape Myrtles, just don’t unless you are removing a potential problem (crossing branches, damaged areas, etc.). If the canopy is too dense to allow any light through to the ground, light thinning is a good idea. Frequently you can achieve the same result by removing “clutter growth” – all the small branches, smaller than a pencil, that clutter the interior of the tree. That’s it. These are small trees – you don’t hack your Oak or Maple, so don’t hack your Cherry, Redbud, deciduous Magnolias or Dogwood.



It’s surprising how many people don’t know that Loropetalums produce flowers. Fabulous, bold, pink flowers in spring…if they are properly pruned. Unfortunately, most Loropetalums are perpetually sheared and shaped into balls and cubes. Once you jump on this treadmill you’re committed to shaving the “hairs” off every week or two so they don’t look unkempt, and they never have time to develop flowers. ….To keep these balls and cubes nice and neat, you have to shear them quite often. This process destroys almost all ….buds……

If your Loropetalums have been flat-topped like Sargent Carter’s hair for most of their lives, lightly prune them now but then don’t touch them. Your goal is to thin them out to direct more energy to fewer canes and to allow more light into the plant. But then don’t touch them until after they flower. After flowering, do it again. Most important, don’t let anybody assault them with shears, gas or otherwise. If you have to constantly prune Loropetalums, they’re probably in the wrong place.

Roses (shrub, not climbers):

The Grand Poobah of the Royal Order of the Rose will tell you that you must wait until February 15th to prune your Roses. This conventional “wisdom” has been around for eons, but Roses don’t use calendars and all aspects of the environment, from which they do take their cues, has changed. Prune them anytime during the winter months and you will be fine.



Non-flowering shrubs (Hollies, Ligustrum, Anise, Clayera, etc.):

As a very general statement (e.g. research your specific plant before pruning), non-flowering shrubs of all kinds are best pruned in the winter months. Whether you are doing heavy structural pruning, or light maintenance pruning to keep the canopy loose, now is the best time to do it.

This is certainly a non-inclusive list, but it covers some of the most popular plants in the Atlanta landscape. If you have questions about a particular plant, please don’t hesitate to email us.

Happy gardening.