Once established, bushes and shrubs often last for decades without the need for intensive maintenance. Shrub care typically means a little pruning from time to time plus ensuring the plant has enough water during excessively dry, hot weather. Many shrubs are fairly easy to care for compared to the typical plants in a garden or flowerbed——providing maximum curb appeal for minimum effort.
Figure Out What Shrubs You Have
While shrub care requirements are fairly common among many bushes or shrubs, the best way to ensure proper care of your plants is to figure out what they are — this way, any specific issues or concerns are easier to address. Ask neighbors who have the same or similar plants if they know what those plants are and then look up details online. Another option is downloading a plant-identification app that uses pictures you provide to help identify the plant. These apps are not always accurate, but they usually provide several suggestions that come in handy for online research.
Even if you aren't sure where to start, notice how the shrub looks from one season to the next. This is helpful especially for flowering shrubs, as the time of the flowering helps determine the best time to prune. For instance, many spring-flowering shrubs develop buds on old growth, so buds are evident even in winter. Spring-blooming shrubs should be trimmed after blooms fade in most cases, as cutting them in fall or winter would prevent new buds and flowers for spring, according to Monrovia. Many summer-blooming plants such as the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) create blooms on new growth, so cutting back the plants in late autumn or winter is the best time to prune since this encourages a lot of new growth.
Once you've figured out the plant you have or at least the general type, it helps you figure out what that shrub wants or needs as far as watering and general care are concerned. This is especially important for flowering shrubs.
Know When to Prune
Though shrubs are typically low-maintenance plants, occasionally they require a good pruning to keep them healthy and looking attractive. Minor pruning, such as trimming a few new shoots of growth that stand 10 inches taller than the rest of a fairly symmetrical shrub, can be done just about any time. For more intensive pruning, it really depends on the type of shrub. Many evergreen and deciduous shrubs can be pruned in winter, sometimes spring and as late as midsummer since the plant becomes somewhat dormant. Dead or diseased branches can be removed from many types of shrubs as the need arises.
Flowering shrubs should be cut after the blooms fade or die (with a few exceptions). This is also the time to do more intensive pruning. As a general rule of thumb, never cut more than 1/3 of the plant's branches, as cutting more than that may be too hard on the plant. It's always best to follow pruning recommendations that are specific to your plant, as the details may vary from one to another.
The Right Tools
When it comes to shrub care, the proper pruning tools make the task a lot easier while ensuring clean cuts that keep the plant as healthy as possible. Some plant growth is thin enough to trim with garden shears or clean, sharp scissors, while other parts of the same plant may require pruners that can handle thicker twigs and branches. No matter what tools you use, make sure the blades are sharp and clean. Bypass pruning shears are incredibly useful around the garden and may be the tool you find yourself using the most. These have curved cutting blades that are ideal for snipping with ease through twigs that are 1/4-inch thick.
Anvil pruners have one sharp blade that closes against a flat bottom surface. These do not cut as cleanly as bypass pruners and are best for cutting dead branches or for breaking down twigs already cut from a bush. Both anvil and bypass blade styles are available on loppers, which are the long-handled garden tools that require two hands to manipulate. Loppers are for cutting thicker branches.
Hedge shears have long handles like loppers but with blades that resemble large scissors. These can be used to shape shrubs, bushes and hedges but are best for relatively small plants. Using them for large hedges could cause fatigue before you finish the job. An electric hedge trimmer does the job in a lot less time and with less effort. Opt for a battery-powered model to avoid having to deal with an unwieldy electrical cord.
Evergreen Shrub Care
Evergreens are shrubs and trees that don't lose their foliage over the winter. When it comes to evergreen shrubs, the arborvitae (Thuja) is one of the most common, used in front of picture windows or as tall privacy hedges along side yards. Evergreens such as the arborvitae require very little attention once established other than the occasional trimming. Water evergreens with a thorough soaking every few weeks during dry conditions to prevent the plants from turning brown.
In the winter or during wintry weather in fall or spring, wet snow and freezing rain could weigh down the branches of your evergreen, causing the plant to spread out a bit. It may stay that way instead of compact and well-shaped, according to Oregon State University. Tie the top of the shrub with a rough-textured jute twine to help the shrub keep its shape throughout the winter. Remove the twine in spring once there's no danger of heavy snow or freezing rain.
If you are shaping evergreens or even other shrubs, prune some of the inner growth as well, cutting back a branch about 12 inches or so inside the shrub. This helps provide ample airflow inside the shrub; otherwise, as the sheared areas grow out again, numerous new buds will make the plant too dense on the outside, blocking light to the inner areas. Cut the inner branches at a 45-degree angle with sharp, clean pruners, cutting just above an area where the plant branches out at a desirable angle.
Other Shrub Care Considerations
Established, healthy shrubs and bushes generally do not require fertilizer. On the other hand, if the plant has yellowing or browning foliage in spring or summer, even if the plant has had plenty of water, it may be lacking nutrients. The ideal fertilizer depends on whether the plant prefers acidic or alkaline soil. Before purchasing a fertilizer, determine what the plant is so you can determine what to buy and when to apply it. For a more detailed diagnosis, you can have a soil sample tested through a local extension office to learn about specific nutrients the soil may need.
Insect infestations are another concern, and treatment varies depending on the insects at hand. Identify the insect and then check master gardening sites to determine ways to deal with the issue. In many cases, organic or nontoxic solutions are available that will not introduce harmful chemicals into the surrounding environment.
- LawnStarter: Pruning 101: A Guide to Trimming Bushes, Hedges, Shrubs
- Proven Winners: Quick Tips for Pruning Flowering Shrubs
- PennState Extension: How and When to Prune Flowering Shrubs
- Monrovia: Beginner's Guide to Pruning Flowering Shrubs
- The Morton Arboretum: Pruning Evergreens
- Oregon State University: Arborvitae Stands Tall as a Low-Maintenance Hedge
Kathy Adams is an award-winning writer. She is an avid DIYer that is equally at home repurposing random objects into new, useful creations as she is at supporting community gardening efforts and writing about healthy alternatives to household chemicals. She's written numerous DIY articles for paint and decor companies, as well as for Black + Decker, Hunker, SFGate, Landlordology and others.