Well groomed canes are not overgrown.

Heavenly bamboo, or simply ‘nandina’, is one of those many plants that almost never performs like it should. The intricately lacy foliage is so appealing while plants are young, and changes color with the seasons. The red berries can be comparable to those of holly. Unfortunately, healthy plants grow, and then ultimately get shorn into globs of disfigured leaves and stems.

The same abuse afflicts Oregon grape (mahonia), mock orange (philadelphus), forsythia, lilac, abelia and all sorts of shrubby plants that really should be pruned with more discretion. Their deteriorating older stems should be pruned to the ground as new stems grow up from the roots to replace them. It is actually not as complicated as it seems.

This pruning process, known as ‘alternating canes’, prunes the plants from below. It is a standard pruning technique for maximizing production of blackberries, raspberries and elderberries. It is similar to grooming old stalks from bamboo and giant reed, even if it does not prevent them from spreading laterally.

The deteriorating older stems, or ‘canes’, are easy to distinguish from newer growth. Old canes of Heavenly bamboo and Oregon grape become heavy on top, and flop away from the rest of the foliage. Old canes of mock orange and lilac get gnarled and less prolific with bloom. Aging abelia and forsythia canes become thickets of crowded twigs.

The newer stems are likely a bit lower, but are not so overgrown. Since the foliage is not so crowded, it is displayed on the stems better. Their blooms or berries are more abundant. By the time new growth becomes old growth, there will be more newer growth right below it. In fact, the regular removal of aging canes stimulates growth of new canes.

This is the time to prune Heavenly bamboo and Oregon grape, just because the oldest foliage is as bad as it will get after the warmth of summer. Mock orange, forsythia and lilac should get pruned while dormant through winter, but are commonly pruned just after they finish bloom early in spring. Abelia should probably wait until spring because new growth can look sad through winter.

6 thoughts on “New Canes Replace Old Canes

  1. This is an excellent tutorial on pruning. I don’t know why people sear these plans, but it makes them look terrible–and in the case of the nandinas, takes away the possibility of the red berries for winter. …I used to stop our landscape people from committing plant disfigurement, but I gave up…

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    1. Thank you. I could write about it in more detail, but space is limited in the gardening column. Landscaping is so pointless if everything is just shorn into nondescript globs that are deprived of their form, texture and color. I could pile up broken concrete and paint it green for the same (and perhaps more interesting) effect.

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  2. Not only are the plant and berries poisonous, Nandina never dies either, which must be why it’s so popular. The best way to prune it is to cut off all stems at the base, dig up the root ball, put said root ball and cuttings in a big plastic bag, tie it up securely and put it in the garbage. Can you tell how much I like Nandina?

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    1. I suspect that it is not as directly ‘popular’ as it seems to be. I think that it is rarely planted intentionally, but just happens to survive and regenerate after it gets removed from old landscapes. I like it if it is allowed to assume its natural form. However, that is very rare. It is almost always shorn into ugly rounded globs that are deprived of their form and texture.

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      1. It’s natural form is to spread out in a hellish thicket. This is from an article by the Grumpy Gardener: Second, buy improved, sterile nandinas that don’t flower or fruit. You’ll find a number of them in our Southern Living Plant Collection – ‘Flirt,’ ‘Obsession,’ ‘Bush Pink,’ and ‘Lemon-Lime.’ In addition to not fruiting, these compact growers don’t spread by roots to become large thickets the way ordinary nandinas do. They’ve very easy to grow and require little care.” https://www.facebook.com/SLGrumpyGardener/posts/nandina-aka-heavenly-bamboo-is-one-of-those-plants-you-either-love-or-hate-now-t/2860187947363894/

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      2. Well, I do not intend to plant any anyway. I have enough with what survives in old landscapes. Most is complaisant, although we have some that grew into expansion joints in the concrete from which I can not remove it!


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