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Fall Pruning: Tips and Tricks for the Changing Season

Story by Jessica Calvillo

Fall is finally here and it’s now time to prepare our gardens for the eventual transition into winter. As the days become shorter and the nights cooler, many of the natives in our gardens will begin take on their fall color and go into dormancy. During this time as our plants prepare to rest for the winter it is our chance to step in and do some tidying up! Below are some simple tips and tricks that I follow to keep my native garden neat, healthy, and ready for the next spring.

Getting Started

Tools you will need:
- clean sharp pruners, sheers, or pruning saw
- a blade sharpener *
- WD40 to keep your tools working properly
- a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol to sanitize your tools**

*Sharp tools ensure an even and clean cut which will reduce your plants chances of infection.
**Sanitizing your tools between uses on different plants helps reduce the risk of spreading potential pathogens to your other plants.

Pruning Techniques

Deadheading The cutting off of old flowers to encourage new flowers or to improve the plants appearance.

A diagram showing the removal of dead blooms during deadheading

Structural and Aesthetic Pruning This method of pruning is done with the plant’s future shape and growth habit in mind. It involves carefully cutting back certain branches that will guide your shrub or tree to eventually assume a particular shape or growth habit in the future.

A diagram showing structural and aesthetic pruning
Structural and Aesthetic Pruning

Hard Pruning Cutting a plant back down to it’s main branches to control its size or to encourage fresh new growth.

A diagram showing hard pruning
Hard Pruning

Coppice Pruning Cutting a shrub or tree back down to its base or first nodes to encourage tall and straight new growth.

A diagram of coppice pruning a tree
Coppice Pruning

Making the Cut

When doing structural/aesthetic pruning, hard pruning, and coppice pruning it is especially important that you make proper pruning cuts. Properly pruned branches will be able to heal and seal their wounds. Leaving excess stem behind does no good for the plant and excess dead stem can in fact be a breeding ground for infection. Cut too low and the leaf node may not survive the wound and die back down to the next node. In addition to making the right level and angle of cut it is also important to do your pruning in dry weather so that the cuts can dry and heal. These pruning cuts must of course be done with clean and sharpened tools to achieve the best results.

A diagram showing right and wrong ways of making pruning cuts
Wrong and right ways of making pruning cuts

Common Natives Used in Landscapes and Their Fall Pruning Needs

Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.)
When milkweeds go dormant in the fall they can be cut all the way to the ground and will grow back in the spring.
Buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.)
Once the seeds have fallen or been eaten by birds you can deadhead the old flower stems to keep you plant neat. Additional branches maybe snipped back a bit if you wish to keep your buckwheat in a nice mounded shape.
California Aster (Symphyotrichum chilense)
Once seeds have been disbursed, CA Aster can be coppiced down to the ground and will re-emerge in spring.
California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
This plant looks beautiful and green until late fall once its flowering season tapers off and it goes to seed. Once the plant starts to look dry and brittle it can be cut all the way down to the ground. In the spring it will pop right back up from the ground and spread out from its base through rhizomes.
California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum) in flower
California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
Sagebrush can look a but rough after a long summer so a bit of hard pruning can help make way for a much fresher looking plant in the spring.
Coffeeberry (Frangula californica)
Coffeeberry prefers mainly aesthetic/structural pruning and not much more.
Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa)
After a long summer Coyote Mint can look a bit dry and brittle. Hard pruning can be used to bring back fresh new growth in the spring and keep it from getting leggy.
Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
This bunch grass does not necessarily need to be pruned back every year but if you want to keep it more manicured you can cut it down to a small mound and it will grow back full in the spring.
Manicured deer grass
Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
This plant does not need to be pruned beyond structural pruning if you wish to let it grow into a large shrub or tree. If you want to have new straight grow each season you can hard prune or coppice prune it.
Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana)
Mugwort as a very hardy plant that spreads from underground rhizomes. Once it had dropped its seed it can be coppiced all the way down to the ground.
Purple Needle Grass (Stipa pulchra)
Can be pruned the same way as Deer Grass but I would suggest cutting it to a smaller mound as it is a softer and less rigid grass than Deer Grass.
Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
This species of dogwood can create a woody, thicket-y shrub if left unpruned. To enjoy this dogwood at a height of about 5’ and to highlight its straight red branched many choose to coppice prune Red Twig Dogwood each year once it enters dormancy.
Coppiced Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Coppiced Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus)
Seaside Daisy can sometimes begin to look leggy in the fall, so if you wish, it can be hard pruned back to just about 6 or so inches. If you choose not to hard prune you can deadhead it to give it a neater appearance.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Toyon prefers mainly aesthetic/structural pruning and not much more. Make sure you plant it in a spot with plenty of room so it can reach its full potential. It can be trained into a small tree shape with patient thoughtful pruning. Also I would recommend using a small pruning saw for woody shrubs like Toyon and Manzanita to get a clean cut.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) trained into a small tree
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) trained into a small tree
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Throughout the year yarrow can have its dry flower stalks cut down from the base to encourage more flowering. If your yarrow is starting to look a bit scraggly in the Fall months you can hard prune the foliage and dry flower stalks almost to the ground and you will be rewarded with fresh new growth in the months to come.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) in need of deadheading


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