Basic pruning and deadheading techniques
for common California native plants
Preface to pruning
Decide what you are after. Why are you pruning this plant?
Use proper tools that are sharp and sanitized. "Felco" is a brand of top quality Swiss pruners that we use at the nursery, but any pair of sharp, quality pruners will do. If pruning any dead or diseased wood, thoroughly wipe the blade of your tool with alcohol before moving on to the next cut.
Begin by removing any dead wood. This is always good for the health of the plant, and leaves you with a clearer view of the work left to be done. In many cases, simply removing dead growth will make the shrub look 10 times better, and you can stop there. If work still needs to be done...
Use your powers of imagination! How will the shrub look with all the crossing branches removed? Will there be anything left? What if you take off the top third? What about after it regrows? Will you have a "mop head" of foliage on a bunch of straggly stems?
Work slowly. Before pruning a branch, bend it out of the way if possible and decide if you really want to remove it. Look at the foliage attached to it - often an errant branch that is bothering you has a significant amount of greenery attached to it you may not have realized. Better to realize this sooner rather than later.
Coppicing Cutting a shrub to the ground to encourage bushy new growth
Selective Pruning Thoughtful removal of particular branches to achieve desired effect
Shearing Light overall pruning of a plant to limit size and encourage dense growth
Deadheading Removal of spent flower stalks from a plant
Our favorite book for pruning technique is "Carare & Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens" by Bart O'Brien, Betsey Landis and Ellen Mackey. This bilingual book (Spanish/English) outlines gardening techniques for native plants with chapters on soil, watering, planting, pruning, and pest & weed management. These techniques apply to Northern California gardens too. While this book is out of print and somewhat hard to find, sometimes you can find used copies on the internet.
While this guide is a good jumping off point to maintaining your garden, please remember that we are a resource for you here at Yerba Buena Nursery. If you have questions, would like clarifications on anything read above, or don't see your plant on this list? Give us a call at (650) 851-1668.
We also offer a Garden Tune-Up Service, where our Nursery Manager can come to your home and work directly with your plants to give you hands-on guidance. It often feels like a daunting task to begin learning about proper care and maintenance of your Native plants. Never fear, we are here to help!
Deadheading is the simple pruning of spent flower stalks and seed heads to clean up and rejuvenate the plant. While unnecessary for most shrubs, this treatment always benefits flowering perennials. (A perennial is a small flowering plant that does not get larger and woody after a year or two, such as Columbine, Penstemon, Seaside Daisy, etc.
Typically deadheading is done shortly after the plant stops producing new flowers. With some natives, such as Penstemon and Monkeyflowers, removing spent blossoms will encourage the plant to re-bloom again the same season! Others such as Sages typically do not bloom again but look more attractive with this treatment.
Whatever the plant, the basic procedure involves finding a spent flower stalk on the plant, and clipping the stalk back to the first set of healthy leaves below the flower stalk.
An important note about deadheading - by cutting flower stalks as soon as they fade, you are preventing the plant from producing seed, and so its energy goes back into producing new growth, and sometimes new flowers.
Leave trimmings & seeds in your garden for wildlife. Many garden visitors of the non-human kind rely on seeds for their meals, though, so to strike a balance between a neat garden and a garden with high wildlife value, we don't go overboard pruning back every spent blossom - we allow a fair amount of perennials in our garden to go to seed, then cut them back and place the seed-containing refuse in an area where birds and other animals congregate. This pile of branches and seeds is irresistible to quail and other small birds in late summer!
For many native perennials, and a few shrubs, a decent deadheading may be all the pruning they need! It is remarkable what a difference this simple technique makes in the attractiveness and longevity of some plants. Plants that have a woody base to them but produce lots of lush growth each season, such as Monkeyflowers and Penstemon seem to respond especially well to this technique.
We recommend deadheading all native perennials - either at the end of their blooming cycle or in early fall. A calendar for these isn't really necessary - just watch the plants' flowering cycle and they will tell you when it's time. For perennials with particular requirements, a short table is below - otherwise follow instructions above. Shrubs that appreciate deadheading are included in the calendar at the end of this article.