Pruning or cutting back plants is a normal part of preparation for the winter, and it can be both beneficial for many plants and therapeutic for the gardener.
As you prepare to overwinter your container plants, some of them will need to be cut back. However, certain plants should be left alone during the autumn and winter months.
This guide highlights five plants you should avoid cutting back this fall (and why), but first, let’t dive into why you should not prune your plants.
Why (not) prune?
There are many reasons backed by science and experience why pruning is a great practice for encouraging growth in plants, but some plants just should not be cut back during fall.
All plants ultimately shed their leaves and branches as part of their life cycle. It’s important to prune with the natural cadence of the plants.
Here are some reasons NOT to prune your plants this fall:
● Many plants (especially those not native to your USDA zone) need their leaves and branches to survive the cold winter. Avoid pruning plants that are not usually hardy to extreme temperature changes.
● Some plants that flower in early spring start forming their buds in the fall. Cutting them back will mean cutting off the forming buds, which will hinder flower growth and instead encourage leaf growth.
● Many flowering fruit trees are not fully dormant until early spring. Plants need to be fully dormant before they should be cut back.
● Cutting back evergreens in fall integers with the natural hardening-off process of the plants, leaves them vulnerable to pests and diseases.
● Cutting back can interrupt the natural energy storage process of large deciduous plants (which usually happens as they gradually shed their leaves). This might interfere with their production during the growth season.
Even though fall is not the growing season, your plants could still be at risk. Check out these common fall pests and diseases to look out for and how to control their spread.
Do NOT cut back these 5 plants during fall:
1. Flowering fruit trees
Fall is a key stage in the growth cycle for flowering fruit trees, which is why you should NOT prune them. To start with, pruning forces the plants to start budding, and the new buds will be exposed to the cold season without having the chance to harden off, which means that their growth will be stunted. This also leaves them open to infestation by pests and insects looking for new growth to thrive on during the cold season.
2. Lavender plant
While pruning is generally recommended for promoting bushier growth, cutting back lavender in the fall can leave it vulnerable to winter damage. Instead, wait until spring to remove the spent flower stalks to encourage a more compact and vigorous plant.
3. Rose bushes
Roses benefit from strategic pruning, whether in containers or as ornamental garden plants, but fall is not the time for a major trim. Pruning stimulates bud growth, which may not have hardened off by the time winter comes around. Delay major pruning until late winter or early spring, focusing on removing dead or diseased wood and shaping the plant for the coming growing season.
4. Evergreen shrubs and trees
Many evergreen plants such as juniper, rhododendrons, boxwood, gardenias, holly etc should be spared from significant pruning in the fall. Pruning stimulates growth, which will be vulnerable to the harsh winter winds and frost. Save major pruning for the late winter or early spring when these plants are entering a more active growth phase.
5. Fall-blooming perennials
Perennials that bloom in the fall like asters, sedums, and chrysanthemums, should not be cut back until after they have flowered. Pruning these plants in the fall would mean sacrificing their fall blossoms, and you don’t want that. Once their blooms have faded (typically in late fall or early winter), you can cut back the spent stems.
What to do instead of pruning
While you spare these plants from the wrath of your garden shears, it's still essential to maintain them to prepare for the winter.
● Remove any diseased or dead fallen leaves and stems to prevent plant diseases from developing and spreading
● Apply a layer of mulch around the base of the plant to insulate the soil and protect the roots from extreme temperature fluctuations during the winter.
● Move exposed plants to more secluded locations, and group plants with the same care needs together to create humidity and warmth. If moving them is not an option, consider protecting your container plants with a screen or plastic tarp.
● Inspect the leaves ad stems for any pests or insect larva. Wipe down their leaves and stems with a neem oil solution too for maximum protection.
Pruning is great for maintaining plant health and promoting vigorous growth, but some plants benefit more from a hands-off approach in the fall. By respecting the natural growth cycles and flowering patterns of these plants, you can ensure a vibrant and thriving garden every year.
What’s going on in your fall garden? It’s not too late to start prepping for winter. Follow our fall container garden guide to prepare your container plants for the changing season.