As the old saying goes, every rose has its thorns. This is literally true of barberry shrubs (Berberis spp.), which make terrific defensive hedges thanks to their impressive thorns. But these same sharp thorns make it difficult to prune barberries without risking serious wounds. If you're resolved to trim, the first info you'll need is when and how to prune.
Meet the Barberry
There is not one type of barberry shrub, but rather many different landscape plants, all grouped together botanically under the Berberis genus. Some are deciduous, like the extremely popular Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) that offers brilliant fall color plus winter berries. Others are evergreen, like wintergreen barberry (Berberis julianae). This variety has thorny branches and grows to 10 feet tall and wide, with lustrous green leaves that turn to wine-red in fall and winter. In spring, it sports showy yellow flowers followed by and blue-black berries.
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One thing all barberries share: the thorny nature of their stems. And these aren't tiny prickles but armed-and-dangerous thorns that can rip clothing and skin. The hidden blessing is that they make excellent barrier plants because, when planted close together, it is difficult for man or beast to push their way through, and certainly casual trespassers would be discouraged.
Schedule Barberry Shrub Pruning
Barberry plants are quite easy maintenance, but pruning is required. In order to set up a time frame for barberry pruning, determine if yours are deciduous or evergreen. This is not difficult in winter, since evergreen barberry holds onto its holly-like leaves, while deciduous barberry loses its foliage in autumn. If you are trying to answer this question in spring, evergreen barberry's yellow flowers are larger and more ornamental than those on deciduous shrubs.
The best time to prune evergreen species of barberry is during winter. Although the plant does not lose its leaves, it does go into light dormancy from late winter to early spring and this is the best time to trim. Prune deciduous barberry in very early spring, just before new growth begins. The ideal time for thinning or cutback is late March or early April.
Pruning Barberry Bushes
Barberries are not delicate plants that must be treated with kid gloves. They are tough, and their thorns are dangerous enough to wound you. Thick leather gloves are more to the point, and gauntlet gloves — up to your elbows — are recommended. Wear long pants and long sleeves as well.
You'll need to decide just how much trimming the shrubs require. Every barberry requires some trimming to keep it attractive and to let sunlight and air get to the center of the clump. Many gardeners prefer to cut the plants to the ground every four years or so rather than tackling gentle pruning every year. When cut all the way down to 1 inch tall, barberry will regrow up to 2 feet in the first year.