March – a month to plan and to prune

March 6, 2023

Winter-bearing shrubs help wildlife get through the winter

In my gardening choices, I want to get the widest benefits. With a shrub, not only can I have flowers, but I can attract wildlife that come looking for their nectar and pollen. And most importantly at this time of year, the berries that are borne above the snow line, and remain on the branch, provide critical food for winter wildlife.

I enjoy regular visits from a flock of cedar waxwings because of a variety of berry-producing shrubs in my yard. I am a fan of shrubs because they provide this great wildlife service, but they also reduce the amount of mowing needed, give some privacy, interest and colour, and even produce edible berries for myself.

Highbush cranberry, the hips of our native five-petalled rose, and Canadian holly (winterberry) all tide wildlife over until spring’s new crop of foods. Mountain ash is a lovely small tree that also attracts a lot of winter attention. Non-native species like burning bush and wild multi-floral roses (those sprawling thorny affairs) are invasive. They’re great for feeding the birds, but do keep an eye on them if you have them.

Why native shrubs?

Aside from flowers and fruits, the leaves of native shrubs also provide food for insects. We are becoming more appreciative of the importance of insects. Our choices of plants, which are the base of the food web, are critical in feeding those insects that attract and feed welcome birds and mammal visitors.

A lot of native shrubs enjoy the shade, have a delicate spreading habit, and modest flowers, like beaked hazelnut and fly honeysuckle. Bayberry, sweet fern, and the evergreen juniper thrive in sun, and offer attractive forms and scents. The resilience of these native species, since they have evolved in local conditions, makes them a sound investment.

Planning and pruning

Late winter is about the best time of the year to plan a few purchases and consider some maintenance for any shrubs that you already have.

Do you prefer evergreens, or the colour of seasonal blooms? Think of the colour and timing of blooms or berries. Note whether the space you are filling calls for a shrub that needs shade or sun, or a little or a lot of water.

A very common mistake in choosing a shrub is not considering the full-grown size of a shrub for the space you have in mind (or not actually having a space in mind when you purchase). Unless you’ve been lucky enough to choose a shrub and a location that never needs tending, shrubs are like a head of hair: a regular trimming generally keeps everyone happy.

For many woody plants, late winter (now!) is the absolute best time to prune, just at the end of their dormancy. It’s a welcome gardening activity that can be done in the off season.

Reasons to prune

A cedar waxwing checks out ripening service berries. Photo by Allan MacMillan

There are three general reasons for pruning. First, you want to prune for health, by removing dead and diseased branches, and preventing disease by thinning out branches for good air circulation.

You also can do annual or bi-annual trims – these keep the shape you want or encourage more flowers or fruit. These smaller jobs can be done just after flowering, so that you don’t interfere with its flowering next year. However, late winter is also fine for these.

The third reason for pruning is to bring the shrub back into the shape that fits its surroundings. The shrub that has outgrown its space in the flower bed, or now blocks the window’s view can be tamed. This bigger job often gets put off because of our natural aversion to cutting into a shrub. We are not to blame, as we aren’t typically given enough information, or pruning guidelines when purchasing.

Pruning tips

The viceroy, a monarch look-alike, visits native wildflowers. Photo by Caroline Cameron

In all cases, avoid removing more than one third of the growth when pruning, or it will grow back with a vengeance. So, the really big jobs should be done gradually over a few years.

Before pruning, research or Google pruning pointers for your specific shrub, or ask someone in the know. Some types of shrub require that you leave some greenery on a branch in order for the branch to survive, others will just grow new life if cut back severely.

A more natural shape requires trimming off the longest branches at a ‘Y’ with a branch that is about the right length. After many cuts, you’ll get great results, but patience and frequent stepping back for a look really help.

Hedges are pretty straightforward, tapered to be narrower at the top so that the base gets the light it needs to stay green.

You may prefer a tightly shaped shrub. If so, make sure you leave some greenery on each branch that you leave behind. It may be a hatchet job, but you don’t need it to look like one!

Happy gardening!

Caroline Cameron lives in Strathlorne, and offers gardening and guiding services around Cape Breton Island. Please submit any gardening tips, questions, and news to and visit Facebook at Nature/Nurture Gardening & Hiking.