It's time to prune shrubs and trees

Unlike last winter, this winter has brought us cold weather.  Last January, I wrote about flowers that were beginning to bud and blossom out of season, and I was afraid that frost would come while they were in a vulnerable state and kill them.  All my plants are convinced that they should remain dormant this winter, and I see no buds on plants that should be dormant.
This 'Mahonia' my grandmother dug from her woods is supposed to have buds.  Honeybees visit it when it flowers on days its warm enough for them to fly during February.

According to my own experience and according to the Columbia Garden Club’s book “Gardening Notes for South Carolina,” January and early February are a good time to prune trees and shrubs that do not bloom in the spring such as evergreen shrubs and many trees.  Because my shrubs are dormant now, I can prune them without worrying that the pruning will spur new growth that the frost might kill.  I pruned my ligustrum topiaries a few weeks ago, and I am glad they will remain in their neat spherical shape until they resume growth in the spring. 

On any shrub or tree, at any time of the year, I remove dead, diseased, or broken branches. If I have difficulty determining whether branches on deciduous trees or shrubs are dead or just dormant, I bend the branch gently.  If the branch is pliable, it is alive and if it snaps, it is dead.  If the branch is too large to bend, I scratch the bark with my fingernail; a live branch is green inside and a dead branch is gray or brown.

A favorite activity of landscapers this time of year is mauling crape myrtle trees and pruning otherwise naturally-shaped shrubs into cubes.  People cut off the top branches of crape myrtle trees very short, so that the trees look like a slender pincushion with pins protruding off the top instead of enjoying the graceful, natural form of the tree.  
My natural-looking crape myrtle.  Would you rather look at it all winter, or would you rather see

these poor trees?

Pruning the tree this way is supposed to promote more blossoms than allowing it to grow naturally, but my trees have abundant blossoms and are attractive all year.  I prune mine by cutting off branches that cross or are diseased or broken, but I leave the long graceful form of the branches alone.  I also thin the tree by cutting off branches at the trunk.  Thinning the tree allows air to circulate and helps prevent mold. 

“Prune after bloom” is a good rule of thumb, so do not prune forsythia, hydrangeas, azaleas, and camellias, among other spring-blooming shrubs, until after they bloom.  If you prune them before they bloom, you will cut of the flower buds and will have to wait until next year for blossoms. 

Use hedge trimmers to shape boxwoods and hollies into squared-off shapes, if you prefer it, but please do not prune azaleas, camellias, forsythia, loropetalum, and other shrubs with graceful, flowing branches into little squares or balls.  Flowering shrubs are much more attractive, and easier to maintain, if you allow them to maintain their natural form.  Reduce size by cutting off entire branches with loppers, not by giving them a haircut with hedge trimmers. 

If you must prune shrubs several times a year to keep them under control, the repeated chore is a sign that you have a shrub in the wrong place.  It may be too big for its spot, or it may have an unruly nature in a place where you would like a neat shrub.  Perhaps both you and the shrub would be happier if you removed it and put something more appropriate to the space in its place.  
My poor loropetalum that I butchered to get to a manageable size.  Actually I tried to cut it back and kill it, because it was an ongoing obstacle in the driveway.  I paid $25 per shrub to get the dwarf variety, but they are enormous shrubs and not appropriate for the space.