How to Prune Spring-Flowering Shrubs
Get ready for warmer weather by planting stunning and fragrant spring-flowering trees and shrubs. Try our favorite varieties and learn everything you need to know about planting, pruning, and forcing branches.
Spring is full of color and life after a long, dreary winter. One of the telltale signs that winter is finally over in the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden® is when crabapple trees start blossoming and filling the air with fragrance. Get ready for warmer weather and bright summer blooms by planting flowering trees and shrubs this spring. With light maintenance and care, your yard will welcome the change of season with blossoming color.
Tree and Shrub Varieties
There are many varieties of trees and shrubs to plant in your garden. Some varieties can be planted in many zones, while others are more picky about where they live. Try one of these popular and widespread plants, or ask your local nursery about options in your region.
The blooms of flowering quince are what makes this shrub shine. Their ruffled appearance has a similar look to the flowers of camellias or English roses. They come in shades of beautiful white, soft pink, coral, and hot pink. This easy-to-grow shrub puts up with heat and drought and is hardy in Zones 4–10. Plant quince in slightly acidic soil with full- to part-sun conditions, and water well in its first year.
Magnolia trees boast wonderful blooms colored light pink, purple, white, and light shades of yellow. These trees can grow up to 20 feet tall and prefer being planted in areas with well-drained soil. The earliest kinds of magnolias to bloom are 'Saucer' magnolias and 'Star' magnolias. Both of these varieties are very easy to grow and display breathtaking blossoms in early spring.
Forsythia makes a statement in any garden, thanks to its array of cascading yellow flowers. Due to its early bloom time, this shrub's flowers are often a sign of spring arrival. Plant forsythia in long hedges for a fireworks display of blooms in spring.
Although the pussy willow isn't as showy as other spring-flowering shrubs, it provides a notable texture to the garden. This shrub is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, alongside the crocus. Thanks to the furry clusters it produces, a pussy willow adds character to the garden. This shrub is fairly easy to take care of—all it needs is full- to part-sun and constant moisture to be happy.
When to Plant
It's best to plant your trees and shrubs in early- to mid-summer—any time from early May to early June is best. Avoid planting trees and shrubs in late July or August, especially if you live in a part of the country where summers get hot and dry. If you wait until the fall to plant, be sure to start before the weather gets too chilly—aim to begin around Labor Day, as cold temperatures will keep the roots from establishing themselves.
New trees and shrubs don't need fertilizer—it can burn young roots. Let the new plants work with the natural nutrients in the soil. When trying to establish a tree or shrub in its first growing season, be sure to water it regularly to promote strong root growth.
How to Plant
When planting balled-and-burlapped trees, dig a hole as deep as the base of the crown of the plant. Be sure to dig a large diameter (we suggest making the hole at least a half size larger than the width of the crown) to give the roots plenty of space. Cut away any metal wires or staples before planting. If biodegradable burlap is used on the tree, feel free to leave the material at the base. Plastic or nonbiodegradable burlap will need to be removed from the tree completely before planting in the ground.
Editor’s Tip: When you buy your balled-and-burlapped tree, ask if the plant is rot-resistant.
Container-grown is the most widely available type of trees and shrubs. This type is planted just like balled-and-burlapped plants, but needs a little extra care. Before starting, water the plant generously so the root ball is easier to slide out of the container and into the ground.
When you pull the plant out of the pot, break up the roots a bit. Just like a balled-and-burlapped tree, place the root in the soil at a depth that is the same height as the top of the nursery pot. Make sure there is enough room around the plant roots for growth.
Editor’s Tip: Use good topsoil—not potting soil with chemical additives.
Bare-root plants are the most economical option when choosing trees and shrubs and can be easily shipped from a nursery. However, it takes some extra work to plant bare-root trees and shrubs at home. After bringing the plant home, unpack it as quickly as possible. Soak the roots overnight in a bucket of cold water to prep for planting the next day. Prior to planting, dig a hole wide enough to fit all of the roots, and use the plant to determine how deep the hole should be. Be sure that all roots are covered by soil when planting—don't leave any in the open air. You can also try growing bare-root plants in a holding area, such as a vegetable or flower garden. Once they get established, transplant them to a roomier spot. However they are planted, make sure to water well.
Prune early-spring bloomers, such as lilac and rhododendron, right after they bloom—about a week or so after all of the flowers fade. Don’t wait and prune late in the summer or fall—this is when buds are beginning to set for next year.
The point of pruning is to get rid of any dead branches and any branches that are crossing each other; you want a shrub with an open middle and a nice base shape. Cut right beneath or right at the node of the plant so you know the cut will go the right direction. If you are nervous about pruning, wait about a year to let the plant establish and reevaluate. The most important thing when pruning is to not overdo it. Most plants like being pruned because it promotes new growth and keeps them in bounds, but only to a certain extent.
Editor's Tip: The best pruners to use are bypass pruners. One of the problems with pruners is they can spread fungal diseases from one plant to another if not cleaned properly. Disinfect your pruners with alcohol before pruning or when switching plants.
Forcing branches isn’t as harsh as it sounds; you are really just coaxing the branches into blooming earlier in the season. It’s a way for the impatient gardener to get their spring bloom a little early. Forsythia, quince, and cherries are some of the easiest branches to force. To start, select a branch when it’s budding. Use a pruner to make an angled cut and place it immediately in water. Then, cut the end of the stem in cross-sections. Smashing the bottom of the woody stem with a hammer is another way to open it up. By opening up the end of the stem, more water and nutrients can be absorbed into the plant to promote growth. Place the branches in water and move to a cool, dark area, like a closet or a basement. You can even wrap the stems in wet newspaper to keep the buds a little moister. After a few days, bring the branches into a warmer place so they can naturally start to bloom.