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Prune Spring Flowering Shrubs for More Flowers

By: Jim Childs
Want to see more flowers on your spring-blooming shrubs? Plan ahead and prune after they bloom to encourage better blooming next year.

deutzia shrub spring flowers: Spring-flowering shrubs like this deutzia should be pruned after they flower.

Pruning flowering shrubs to stimulate more blooms

If you want more color from your spring-blooming shrubs, start planning in spring while they are in flower. You may be surprised to find that pruning is the most effective way to stimulate your shrubs to bloom better, but you need to do it right after the flowers fade. Pruning can be a frightening task but you won't hurt your plants, not if you do it the right way. And this isn’t hard to do. Here's how to prune spring-flowering shrubs to encourage more and bigger blooms for next year.

Pruning timing is critical

Spring-flowering shrubs bloom on branches formed the year before. Don't prune in the early spring or you'll cut off this year's flowers. Wait until right after the flowers are spent because these shrubs need time to form the buds on new summer growth for next year’s flowers. If you cut too late, you’ll cut off those buds and miss out on the blooms for a year. And if you prune them back too much, you may lose the flowers for a year or so, too. But don’t worry, I’ve included illustrations showing you the simple pruning techniques to use.

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Illustration of how to deadhead a lilac by Carlie Hamilton

How to deadhead a shrub

Deadheading, which you see in the illustration above, means snipping off just the spent flowers. Often on a deciduous shrub, you can even see new leaves sprouting at the base of the dying flowerhead. This makes the decision of where to cut easy on shrubs with large flowers, such as lilac or viburnum.

Spring is also when you should deadhead evergreens, such as rhododendron and mountain laurel, but don’t take off too much. They are often slower growing than their deciduous counterparts and take more time to recover. With your fingers, grasp each spent cluster of flowers at the base and give it a twist to snap it off. Do it early in the day, before the sun wilts the stems, and you’ll find they come away easily.

Tools You Might Like for Deadheading
Compact Garden Shear
Mini-Pruning Shear
Straight Blade Pruning Snips

Illustration showing how to thin forsythia after spring bloom by Carlie Hamilton

Tips for thinning spring-flowering shrubs

It would be very tough to deadhead all of the individual flowers on a forsythia, mockorange or deutzia. For shrubs like these, which have lots of small blossoms along the branches, trim back each stem tip after flowering to encourage more side branches and maintain the shape of the plant. Then remove a few of the older stems, cutting about a third of them down to within a few inches of the ground. The new stems that result from making these cuts will produce the best flowers over the next two to three years. As those stems mature, you take some of them out every year to make room for more new growth. This technique is called “thinning,” and you can see where to make cuts in the illustration above.

Tools You Might Like for Thinning Shrubs
Classic Hand Pruner
Bypass Pruner

Guide to pruning spring-flowering shrubs

Pruning spring-flowering shrubs is that simple. Deadheading and thinning are the only two pruning techniques you need to know to get more flowers for the 38 shrubs featured in the chart below.

Plant name Botanical name Blooms Deadhead or Thin Tips
Almond, flowering
Prunus glandulosa ‘Sinensis’
Pink; early spring Thin Thin half or more to produce more branches to keep the plant as dense as possible
Kolkwitzia amabilis
Pink, midspring Thin Thin every spring to help prevent this plant from growing ragged and leggy
Camellia japonica and hybrids
Red, pink, white; early spring Deadhead Deadhead to keep the plant tidy, but don’t worry if you can’t reach them all; this shrub resents heavy pruning
Aronia spp.
White; spring Thin Thin after blooming, however you’ll lose the colorful late-season fruit
Currant, clove
Ribes odoratum
Yellow; early spring Thin Thin no more than a third to maintain the height; does produce some fruit, but it’s not showy
Daphne xburkwoodii
Pink; midspring Deadhead or Thin Remove dead wood first; shear lightly to deadhead and promote more flowering side branches
Deutzia gracilis
White; early spring Thin For a natural look, thin up to half of the branches; for a compact habit, cut all stems to the ground
Dogwood, cornelian cherry
Cornus mas
Yellow; early spring Thin Thinning lets you see the small flowers easier, but it does reduce the bright red fall fruit
Dogwood, redosier
Cornus sericea
White; late spring Thin Thin to maintain height and flowering; cut all stems to the ground for the most red winter stems
Forsythia xintermedia
Yellow; early spring Thin Cut a third to half of the old stems to the ground and shorten the rest each spring
Forsythia, white
Abeliophyllum distichum
White; early spring Thin Cut out up to half of the old wood each spring; in summer snip off a few tips to keep it looking tidy
Fothergilla gardenii
White; midspring Deadhead Deadhead back to a side branch to develop a fuller, more compact habit
Loropetalum chinense
Dark pink; midspring Thin Thin lightly to maintain natural form; prune the ends of all stems to promote a more compact habit
Gardenia jasminoides
White; mid- to late spring Deadhead Flowers often drop off clean, but pinch out spent blossoms to keep the plant tidy
Hawthorn, Indian
Rhaphiolepis umbellata
White; late spring to summer Thin Evergreen shrub needs only a light thinning to keep it tidy; black fruit hangs on through winter
Jetbead, black
Rhodotypos scandens
White; late spring Thin Loose, arching habit; thin after it flowers to keep the plant tidy, however you'll forfeit the black fruit
Kerria japonica
Yellow; midspring Thin Thin to help keep this loosely branched shrub tidy; stems are bright green even in winter
Lilac, common
Syringa vulgaris
Purple, pink, red, white; midspring Deadhead Deadhead to keep tidy; thin up to a third of the stems every few years to reduce height
Philadelphus hybrids
White; late spring Thin Thin out stems that are two years old or more; shorten other stems to produce more side stems
Mountain laurel
Kalmia latifolia
Red, pink, white; spring Deadhead Evergreen; deadhead spent flowers; don’t thin more than third of the branches if you need to rejuvenate
Physocarpus opulifolius
Pale pink, white; late spring Thin Thin several of the oldest stems to the ground each year; snip a few tips to grow more side branches
Pea shrub
Caragana arborescens
Yellow; midspring Thin Thin out oldest wood to keep the shrub flowering and fresh looking; can also be sheared for size
Exochorda spp. and hybrids
White; midspring Thin Thin up to half the stems to keep the loose form more dense and filled with flowers
Pieris, Japanese
Pieris japonica
White; spring Deadhead Evergreen; deadhead spent flowers to tidy the appearance
Privet, Japanese
Ligustrum japonicum
White; late spring Thin Thin this evergreen for a casual, informal look; can be sheared into a formal style
Pyracantha coccinea
White; late spring Thin Thin or train as an espalier; too much pruning reduces the amount of colorful fall fruit
Quince, flowering
Chaenomeles japonica
Red, pink, white; midspring Thin Thin after flowering; cut back tips of branches in summer to promote new flowers
Rhododendron and Azaleas
Rhododendron spp. and hybrids
Pink, red, white; spring Deadhead Both evergreen and deciduous; deadhead; snip out errant stems at the same time to tidy the shape
Amelanchier spp.
White; early spring Thin Thin only lightly or you’ll reduce the summer fruit
Lindera benzoin
Yellow; early spring Thin Thinning promotes more branches, but you will lose some of the bright red fall fruit
Spirea, baby's breath
Spiraea thunbergii
White; early to midspring Thin Thin up to half to maintain height, or cut all stems to the ground to rejuvenate each spring
Spirea, bridalwreath
Spiraea prunifolia
White; early to midspring Thin Thin out oldest stems and clip back other stems to promote more flowering side branches
Spirea, vanhoutte
Spiraea xvanhouttei
White; late-spring Thin Thin out up to a third of the oldest stems; snip off tall stems to force more side branches
Calycanthus floridus
Dark red; late-spring Thin Thin out a few of the oldest stems; to keep the shrub dense, also shorten back a few of the tips
Viburnum, doublefile
Viburnum plicatum tomentosum
White; midspring Deadhead Keep pruning to a minimum or you may ruin the layered habit this shrub is known for
Viburnum, Koreanspice
Viburnum carlesii
Pale pink; midspring Deadhead Deadhead back to a side branch; does produce fruit, but it's not showy
Corylopsis glabrescens
Yellow; early spring Thin Rarely needs much pruning, but a light thinning of upper branches will show off the flowers better
Hamamelis xintermedia
Yellow, orange; late winter to early spring Thin Rarely needs much pruning; remove suckers and do a light thinning to show off the flowers better
Published: July 14, 2021
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