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Q&A: Honeysuckle pruning & witches' broom

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This was a question I received via email. I thought it may be helpful to you as Master Gardeners - jw

Question: We have a honeysuckle hedge 150 feet that really had problems this winter. The branches are bent over many bent and broken branches. It is about 30 years old. Can we cut this down to within a few inches of the ground - will it recover? Or should we cut the dead branches out, and hope that it will recover? Our hedge is about 150 feet in length, and we love to keep it as it is a barrier from the road in front. Please let us know if we can cut it back at this time of year. We realize that honeysuckle has a disease called Witches Broom. Will cutting the hedge make it more susceptible to this disease?

My answer: While you could probably cut your honeysuckle down to about 8-12" above ground without much plant health issue, it is better to do renewal pruning (see below and publications). The drawbacks to this type of renovation pruning is:
  • The older branches don't typically get pruned out;
  • The shrub may be unattractive for the next year or two;
  • It stresses the plant, making it susceptible to disease and insects.
A better recommendation is renewal pruning. Prune out 1/3 of the plant each year for the next three years, selecting the largest branches to remove right at ground level. This will allow the younger branches to grow. You can also head back branches, bringing the overgrown plant into a better overall form. Remove or head back (prune branches from the end of the branch toward the inside of the plant) any broken branches. Clean, neat cuts in the branches are important. Avoid ragged cuts that are more difficult to heal by using a good quality, sharp pruner or lopper. Here is a good web publication: Care & Maintenance of Deciduous Shrubs

Here also is a link to a good Extension publication on pruning shrubs: Pruning Trees & Shrubs

Re: Witches' Broom: Once a shrub is infected, it cannot be cured. Some shrubs tolerate the infection; others decline for several years and then die. We have a great article by Extension pathologist Michelle Grabowski in the May 1st edition of the Yard & Garden News. Caused by phytoplasmas - single celled organisms in a group known as fastidious bacteria. These bacteria live in plant sap and interfere with photosynthesis, plant growth, development and seed production. Infected shrubs often have yellow, curled or distorted leaves.

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In the future, please submit your questions at Ask A Master Gardener. This free online Q&A tool is monitored by trained UMN Extension Master Gardeners and supported by the National Cooperative Extension System. Questions submitted will be answered within 48 hours.

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