Green Patch: Perennial Pruning

For the Beginner

| April/May 1998

Spring Pruning

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.

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