Timing is Everything—Landscape Maintenance in January. Let The Light Shine In

People ask, “What should I do in my yard in January and February? Is it time to prune the shrubbery? What else should I do?” Here are some of the treatments that I provide for my clients this time of year. It also occurred to me that I am one of my clients, thanks to the suggestions of my sweet wife.

Many of our evergreen trees this time of the year have lots of brown spots     and begin to appear straggled. The trees and shrubs grow luxurious foliage in the summer which shades out the growth inside the plants. In the winter, a good thing to do is to prune the trees and trim out all of the brown and unsightly debris. Here is a picture of a cripsii cypress that has been carefully pruned and cleaned. Notice all the places where the light can shine in. The tree will begin to grow and fill in during the spring and summer.


This cripsii cypress in January has been pruned and cleaned to be ready for spring growth.

Mid January to early February is the optimum time to prune boxwoods. The lateral buds in the boxwood are waiting to grow but the apical buds (those on the tips of the stems) need to be removed before new growth begins in the spring. To see how this actually works, read a short article titled “The Basics of Pruning that I wrote a number of years ago.

Pictured below is a prized boxwood belonging to one of my clients. He said, “That’s my pride and joy. I haven’t allowed anyone to touch it because no one seemed to know exactly how to do it.”

But I knew what to do—I’ve been doing it for over thirty years. It is a job to be performed by hand, with pruning shears. Power pruners should not be used on a nice plant like this.


This boxwood needed pruning and shaping to let the light in and to thereby gain strength

Pruning took hours, but if you look at the plant in this picture you will see that it has retained the potential for its free-form shape but has also had the canopy of top growth lightened up to allow light to filter in and encourage inside growth and stem strengthening. Also notice that I am in the process of spreading lime which will help to neutralize the acid in the soil and make the plant more receptive to fertilizer in March.


Boxwood plant has been carefully pruned and I’m adding lime to sweeten the soil.

As I write this article I have found a theme in winter duties—allowing the light to shine in.

Our next job was to trim the liriope (monkey grass) to remove last year’s growth and to allow the light to better reach the new growth in the spring. We have found that a weed eater does a most efficient job of this and that we can clean up with a rake and a blower. The liriope that remains after cutting should be about two inches high. It is also good to add lime to this plant in the winter.


January is a good time to trim liriope (monkey grass). This will give more light to the spring growth and allow it to grow freely.

Back at our home on Oakwood Street, my wife and I decided to tackle the dwarf yaupon hollies that are getting a bit overgrown. Again you will see that the canopy of leaves is not allowing the light to shine in. To quote Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”


The dwarf yaupon holly is overgrown and the inside growth is week. It needs pruning for appearance and strength.

After talking about it, we decided to get a bit radical on these plants. I pruned them for light, growth, and shape instead of worrying about how they will look for the next six weeks. I have found that it doesn’t hurt at all to cut the hollies radically because they will grow right back and will look better than ever.


The yaupon holly after drastic pruning. With a little warmth and spring weather this plant will be magnificent.

I hope this information helps. There are a couple of other articles that you may be interested in:

Deadheading and pruning hydranges in January
Prune and trim an overgrown bonsai tree

Thank you for visiting my site and if you like what you see, tell your friends. I started this site almost 9 years ago with the goal of answering questions that I found myself answering frequently. There are many articles on this site and you may find the search feature helpful. – John Schulz


Nathan and Rachel learn how to start a bonsai.

Nathan and Rachel learn how to start a bonsai.

Nathan wanted to know about the art of bonsai and his mother referred him to me.  I thought that the best thing I could do would be to show him how to start a bonsai tree for himself.  Nathan showed up on a nice Wednesday evening with his delightful friend Rachel.  They had been shopping at the Lavender Mountain Hardware nursery and had picked out some rather nice plants with which they would practice the art of bonsai.

Ready for lessons on "how to start a bonsai"

Ready for lessons on “how to start a bonsai”

I had also been shopping that day and picked up a Sergeant’s juniper that was left over from the year before and overgrown in its container.  Nathan and Rachel had brought a Japanese boxwood, an American boxwood, and a Juniper procumbens ‘nana’.  We had all experienced difficulty in finding some nice bonsai dishes, so I rounded up three “hypertuffa” concrete pots that I had made years ago. We had plenty of good, compost based potting soil.

My teaching experience from long ago had acquainted me with the three steps for teaching a concept:  “Tell them how to do it. Show them how to do it, and Let them do it.”  So I used the Sergeants juniper to demonstrate.  The first step is to study the plant, finding the main trunks.

Look at the plant. "There's a bonsai tree in there somewhere"

Look at the plant. “There’s a bonsai tree in there somewhere”

I explained that cutting the apical buds from the plant causes it to branch.  Information on what happens when you prune a plant may be found in my article on “pruning as an art form.  You may find this information on pruning if you CLICK HERE.

The first principle of bonsai, "If you cut off the apical buds, the plant will spread out"

The first principle of bonsai, “If you cut off the apical buds, the plant will spread out”

We cut the root ball in half for two reasons:

1.  To make the root ball fit the pot.

2.  To cut or “root prune” the root ball so that new roots will form.

root pruning the new bonsai candidate

root pruning the new bonsai candidate

The next step is to isolate the main trunks of the tree.  During this selection process, it is best to select an odd number of trunks which will form three or five levels of the plant.  This design concept is called “Ikebana” and isolates three levels which are representative of “Heaven, Man, and Earth.”  After isolating the main trunks, the lower growth is cut off to expose them.

cutting the side growth of the trunk for the new bonsai

cutting the side growth of the trunk for the new bonsai

We plop the plant with the exposed stems into its pot and study the tops.

Study the tops of the tree for possible Ikebani effect

Study the tops of the tree for possible Ikebani effect

After deciding on a direction for the tops of the plant to take, we prune the tips so that, with time, the plant will branch and grow out into a lovely tree.  The bonsai process is never finished.  This is basically how a bonsai tree is started.

carefully trimming the tops of the bonsai will promote branching and filling out.

carefully trimming the tops of the bonsai will promote branching and filling out.

It was time for Rachel and Nathan to practice by starting their own bonsai trees.  Rachel studied her own bonsai tree and we discussed which trunks and branches needed to be either cut off or saved.  She decided to shape the bonsai sort of like an oak tree growing on a mountain.  I told her that I once knew a man who could study an interesting tree in its native habitat and then go home and make an exact miniature of the tree as a bonsai. Rachel also isolated roots to be exposed and grow over rocks which would be inserted after planting.

Deciding what and where to cut for the finished bonsai.

Deciding what and where to cut for the finished bonsai.

Nathan began studying the trunk of his well chosen American boxwood.  I think that isolating and trimming on the tree trunk is the most important part of the project. He also looked at the tops of the stems to decide how to get the Ikebana effect on the finished bonsai.

Study the trunk for the bonsai.  Are there any roots that can be placed over a rock?

Study the trunk for the bonsai. Are there any roots that can be placed over a rock?

The evening proceeded with everyone talking and pointing and cutting and finally potting.  The plants were planted firmly in the pots, using good potting soil to fill in the spaces.  Rocks were added for interest.  Nathan and Rachel plan to find some nice moss to fill in between the rocks, creating a miniature nature scene

The bonsai project works out well

The bonsai project works out well

The procumbens Juniper was turned into a “cascade” bonsai and planted in a pot that was made by the brilliant potter, Jerry Jankovski.

a cascade bonsai from a dwarf trailing juniper (j. procumbens "nana")

a cascade bonsai from a dwarf trailing juniper (j. procumbens “nana”)

That was fun.  We all had a good time working with the plants.  Nathan and Rachel thanked Dekie and me for helping them.  We thanked them for a delightful, fun evening.  Here are the results:

Beautiful bonsai trees all potted and ready to go home

Beautiful bonsai trees all potted and ready to go home

Now, why don’t you start your own bonsai?  It’s easy and fun.

I will write another article on bonsai maintenance and trimming in the near future.

For related articles:

“The simple basics of pruning- Pruning as an art form”, CLICK HERE

“Zen and the art of Crape myrtle pruning”  CLICK HERE

“Summertime care for knockout roses”  CLICK HERE


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