Spring Rejuvenation Of Overgrown Shrubs

I’ve got two questions. First, do you have an overgrown shrub? And second, do you trust me? What I’m about to recommend takes a leap of faith.

Many of us have shrubs that have become overgrown in our yards and landscapes.


Lilacs, dogwood, spirea, mockorange and potentilla can become less beautiful with age as the growth becomes woody, tangled and leggy with all the good growth on the top, with a bare bottom.

Luckily there is a great way to totally rejuvenate overgrown shrubs. The time is now, in spring, before the shrubs leaf out. This method is a time-honored way to give a whole new look to leafy, also called deciduous, shrubs. This does not work for evergreens. When evergreens become leggy and unsightly, there is little hope for


Here’s what to do:

  • Tackle the rejuvenation before the shrubs leaf out, which is triggered by the onset of warm temperatures.
  • Useful tools include pruning saw for branches over 1-inch diameter, long-handled pruning lopper for branches up to 1-inch diameter, and a hand-held pruning shears for pencil-sized branches.
  • Using the appropriate tool, cut all branches back to about 6 inches above soil level. This takes faith, but it works.
  • Do not be timid and cutback only halfway, thinking it’s a “safer” method. Pruning stimulates a flush of growth in the vicinity just below the cuts. If you prune back only partway, you’ll get a flush of growth on the top with a still-leggy bottom. You’ve got the same unsightly problem, except on a reduced-height shrub. Grit your teeth, and prune back all the way.
  • Some sources recommend to cut back one-third of the branches every year over a three-year period. But I’ve found that does not work as well for rejuvenation. A total cutback all at once allows the shrub to use its energy to completely burst forth in a totally good re-do. If you leave two-third of the old, overgrown branches while you cut back one-third, the overgrown branches shade, diminish, and detract energy from the new cutback.
  • Some shrubs won’t bloom the first season after cutback, but that’s ok. The energy is going into producing a nice new, fully-branched and more compact shrub. Lilacs are an example.
  • Stand back, and watch the new growth sprout from the base of the shrub.

“Happy Gardening” with your new and improved shrubs!

3 Responses

  1. Sharon

    I read about trimming evergreens in the paper a short while ago, and believe it said the best time to trim is in April? I have been called for someone to come tomorrow and I am wondering if this isn’t to early? I appreciate your reply and information. Thanks Don

    1. Don Kinzler

      Hi Sharon. In our region, the upper Midwest, evergreens should wait until May and June for pruning and trimming. Leafy (deciduous) trees and shrubs should be pruned in early spring before they leaf out. Hope this helps.

  2. richard hewitt

    Thanks Don, as soon as our late snowfall is gone, I am headed for my leggy lilacs and give them a good haircut.

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