Cut Back, Clip Off

There are times in a landscape’s life when it’s important to clip off certain plant parts.  This is one of those times, particularly for bulbs and roses.  There are other times for other plants too, such as pruning fruit trees in March and digging and cutting back iris in August.

At this point in the season, the winter killed parts of roses, hydrangeas and other perennials are probably “sticking up” in the landscape as if they are just waiting for the next step in their life cycle.  New 2021 growth is likely starting to grow from the base of the plant and hope springs eternal.  The problem comes in that if the old growth is not removed, it will get in the way of the new, and add sections of the shrub for problems to develop.  The main ones are cankers and borers, which love to lurk in old growth.  Removing the old 2020 stems will go a long way to prevent these problems.

Before you head out to cut off the dead growth, be sure to be “armed” with the right stuff – leather gloves, by-pass lopping shears, a close quarters pruning saw and a by-pass hand pruners.  The leather gloves will help your fingers have a chance at escaping the experience without getting pierced with a thorn; thus, they are essential.  You can debate and experiment with smooth and rugged leather versions, but just wear them.  The other consideration is to match up the size of the stem to the tool – one eighth inch to one half inch, use the hand pruners; one half to three quarters, use the loppers; anything bigger, use the saw.

The clip off activity is most common with plants that bloom early in the spring such as tulips and daffodils.  After the showy petals are gone, the “plant’s brain” thinks it is supposed to produce seeds and tries to do so.  If you want the plant to be healthier and put more of its energy into producing leaves and roots and enlarging the bulb, it’s wise to use a hand pruners or plant scissors and clip off the swollen section just underneath where the petals dropped off.  Clipping in this way will help to regrow the bulb to its original size or possibly enlarge it, which will result in a great floral display in 2022.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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