Question: My lavender, sage, and thyme plants look shabby and weather-beaten every spring, but I hesitate to prune them because I don’t know how. When should I cut them back, and how much should I take off?
Answer: Don’t be timid—spring pruning is good for the plants you’ve named, as well as any other perennial herbs that die back partway to the ground in winter. Besides making them look neat and cared-for, pruning stimulates healthy new growth.
Use sharp pruning or hedge shears (or grass shears for thin, wiry stems) to groom your plants after the worst of winter is past, about the time the daffodils are in full bloom.
In general, you should remove last year’s flower stalks and any stems and leaves that have been frozen, desiccated by winter sun and winds, or broken by ice and snow. After you’ve finished trimming, shake each plant vigorously to dislodge any stray clippings and dead leaves, then rake up all the litter and compost or discard it. The following are guidelines for pruning some common herbs.
• Garden sage: Prune a few inches off the tips of all the stems and cut out some of the older, thicker stems near the base of the plant.
• Lavender and santolina: In mild climates, you can just shear a few inches off the tips of all the stems, but in cold climates you have to cut off everything that’s been frozen. These parts look discolored and droopy and feel “dead” (brittle in arid climates, mushy in wet climates) when you cut them, not crisp like living stems. If you wait until you see tiny new leaves sprouting from the lower parts of the stems, it will be easy to distinguish the living from the dead tissue. It won’t hurt a plant to cut stems that are pencil-thick and woody, but cutting old trunks that are thicker than your fingers may stunt or kill it.
• French tarragon: Grab the stems like a ponytail and cut off last year’s growth close to the plant’s woody base.
• Germander, winter savory, and hyssop: With hedge shears, trim all the stems back by one-third, leaving a rounded mass of twigs. With pruners, cut off any dead twigs (they’ll be leafless and brittle) close to the base of the plant.
• Rosemary: In mild climates, rosemary needs little pruning, but you can prune or shear it to control its size and give it a uniform, bushy shape.
• Southernwood and wormwood: Prune hard, leaving pencil-thick woody stubs 4 to 6 inches tall.
• Thymes: Mow creeping, mat-forming thymes with hedge or grass shears. Prune upright thymes as you would germander.
The tops of angelica, anise hyssop, bee balm, catnip, fennel, horehound, lemon balm, lovage, mints, oregano, sweet cicely, sweet woodruff, tansy, and many other herbs die down to the ground in late fall or early winter. You can groom these plants by removing the old dead stalks whenever you get a chance—you don’t have to wait until spring.
Care of Chives
Chives are a special case. The roots are bulbs, so the top growth comes up fresh every year and never gets woody. Spring care of chives consists of simply pulling off last year’s dried foliage. Otherwise, stand back and admire the vivid green foliage and beautiful, tasty flowers (delicious in salads and omelettes).
It’s after the flowers have faded that you need to prune chives, for the flower stalks are tough and tasteless. To get rid of them, grab the entire clump like a ponytail and cut everything off close to the ground. Apply a mild dose of fertilizer, water well, and within a few weeks the clump will look better than ever, producing tender leaves for the rest of the season.
Rita Buchanan is a woman of many interests, among them gardening, weaving, and spinning. She tends a large herb garden in Winsted, Connecticut.