Nandina Plant Pruning: Tips For Cutting Back Heavenly Bamboo Shrubs


By: Teo Spengler

If you want a tall easy-care shrub with showy flowers that doesn’t require much water, how about Nandina domestiica? Gardeners are so thrilled with their nandina that they call it “heavenly bamboo.” But nandina plants can get leggy as they grow taller. If you want to learn how to prune nandina, we’ll give you the top tips on cutting back heavenly bamboo.

Nandina Plant Pruning

Despite the common name, nandina plants are not bamboo at all, but they resemble it. These tall shrubs are both stiffly upright and very graceful. Adding them to your garden adds texture and an oriental touch.

Although you probably need to prune heavenly bamboo to keep it looking its best, the shrub offers so much in return. It is evergreen and provides ornamental features in every season. In spring and summer it offers frothy white flowers that turn to bright berries in autumn and winter. Nandina’s leaves turn red in the fall as well, while new foliage grows in bronze.

You’ll find that heavenly bamboo comes in different sizes. Dwarf cultivars are available that stay under 5 feet (1.5 m.) tall. Other shrubs can get to 10 feet (3 m.) tall. They have a lovely, natural shape and it is a mistake to try to shear them into shapes. But pruning heavenly bamboo plants to keep them bushy is worth the effort. Nandina plant pruning allows for a fuller plant.

How to Prune Nandina for Density

Keep in mind that pruning heavenly bamboo plants severely is not always necessary. The shrub grows slowly and keeps its shape. But an annual pruning in early spring allows taller cultivars to produce new shoots and lacy foliage at lower levels of the trunk.

Keep the rule of thirds in mind. Get out the pruners or loppers in winter or early spring and begin. Start by cutting back heavenly bamboo canes. Take out one-third of the total number at ground level, spacing those you remove evenly throughout the bush.

Then, prune heavenly bamboo stalks – one-third of those remaining – to reduce their height. Snip them off above a leaf or leaf bud about halfway down the cane. As they sprout new growth, they will fill in the plant. Leave the remainder of the plant unpruned.

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Pruning 101-Nandina

Nandina, or Heavenly bamboo, is a deservedly popular landscape staple in the south. Few other shrubs are super-low maintenance, are sun and shade tolerant, have attractive feathery leaves that are a lovely bronze in spring and showy red for fall and winter, plus many varieties flower nicely and adorn themselves with brilliant red berries. They are by nature fairly slow growing and rarely outgrow their location. What’s not to love?

The only flaw, and a minor one at that, is that they can become overly thick with age, or develop an irregular shape. I say minor flaw because it is so darn easy to prune them properly, and late winter is the best time to prune Nandina in the Piedmont. There are several forms of Nandina that vary in size from about 2 feet to well over 6 feet, but the basic technique is the same. As far as frequency goes, dwarf or groundcover Nandinas may need little if any pruning, with perhaps only the occasional tall stem removed taller varieties may begin to show bare stems that need removing yearly.

You'll need a good pair of pruners, or loppers for very old, thick canes. Remove the tallest, oldest canes, or any that lean or cause the overall shape to become irregular and awkward. In addition, if the clump is very thick and the foliage seems crowded, thin out by removing a few of the oldest or thickest canes. Prune the canes out all the way to the ground and don’t remove more than 1/3 of the total canes. This will encourage fresh, new stems to sprout with beautiful new foliage. Never shear Nandina as it destroys the soft, informal character of the plant.

Well-pruned Nandina has thick, attractive foliage and a natural yet controlled shape.

These poorly pruned - or sheared - Nandina look tired and have an unnatural shape.

The stems showing bare canes on this Nandina should be removed to the base.

In almost every instance you will remove all of the tall bare stems completely and not leave any visible after pruning. The exception would be an old clump of Nandina that has become very sparse with a lot of bare cane showing and little or no bottom growth. In this case you would remove one-third of the canes in the first year, starting with the tallest or the ones leaning the most. Then prune another third of the total canes the next year, and so on. Cutting the tall canes will encourage new growth to sprout from the base the following spring. In three years all of the oldest canes will have been removed, and new growth encouraged.

That’s it! Check out this video with Katie Cardille demonstrating how to prune a Nandina.

Simple instruction on pruning Nandina domestica.

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Simple instruction on pruning Nandina domestica.


Pruning Heavenly Bamboo Plants - Learn When And How To Prune Nandina Shrubs - garden

I promised I would follow up from my last blog about Nandina domestica – Heavenly Bamboo and how seriously low maintenance they are. I’ll give you my easy pruning trick for Nandina and you’ll be all set to use this shrub, a low maintenance year round beauty, in your Portland landscape.

What’s the problem with shearing Nandina?

If it’s so easy to prune why do we see so many sad looking Nandina out there? People try to prune them like a boxwood hedge. Boxwoods have a typical shrubs’ woody structure and little tiny leaves. They can be sheared and look pretty good. Nandina are a multiple cane plant with a compound leaf composed of many oval shaped leaves. The best way to ruin their appearance is to shear them into little round balls or squares.

Restore leggy sparse leafed Nandina plants

These photos illustrate embarrassing ugly examples of Nandina out there in commercial and residential landscapes. These sad plants at my local bank have not been pruned at all. If yours look this bad, hold off on tossing them.

We could correct these ugly leggy Nandinas’ appearance in one year by applying the pruning technique I have illustrated here. These Nandina domestica ‘Gulfstream’ could look amazing with regular irrigation and pruning once every year or two.

My drawing “Fix Leggy Nandina” illustrates restoring a Nandina that has developed leggy bare canes (or stems if you like). It has no foliage at the base of the plant.

The Cool Trick to Pruning Nandina

The simplest pruning technique is to cut 1/3 rd of the canes to the ground and call it done. This technique will get you a much better plant once the new canes sprout. I control the height by selecting the tallest canes to remove.

You can take your easy pruning a step farther and select another 1/3 rd of the canes and cut them at different heights. If you only have 3 canes to work with it would look like my “Fix Leggy Nandinas” illustration and in one year it would have a new cane with leaves on it sprouting from the ground and the stem you cut back would have new stem and leaves above where you made the cut.

When to Prune Nandina

You can prune nandina any time of year here in the Pacific Northwest. I like to remove canes to use for holiday table decoration in the winter but only from a robust plant with lots of canes. I prefer to do restorative pruning (such as in my illustration “Fix Leggy Nandina”) as early as March or as late as May.

How to Prune Dwarf Nandina

The technique is mostly the same, but dwarf varieties like ‘Firepower’ need almost no pruning to contain height and if they get enough sun, they rarely get leggy. The plant can get too wide so I like to thin a few canes out at the bottom (or up to 1/3rd of my canes) every year to keep the plant from ever getting too wide. This allows the little plant to continue serving as a colorful year round foundation plant for the long term in your landscape. Here is a good video to illustrate pruning the dwarf varieties.


Frequently Asked Questions

Is nandina evergreen?

Nandina is evergreen in most climates, but it can sometimes be semi-evergreen or deciduous in colder areas. In the UK, the plant is generally evergreen, with its glossy leaves turning shades of red and purple in late autumn. This makes it perfect for providing winter colour in a UK garden.

Nandina domestic is evergreen in most climates and can tolerate low temperatures down to -23°C

Are nandina berries poisonous to birds?

Nandina berries are considered poisonous to birds, and excessive consumption of them can be fatal. The berries contain cyanogenic glycosides, and when they decompose, hydrogen cyanide is produced, which can cause deadly cyanide poisoning.

When should I cut back my heavenly bamboo?

Heavenly bamboo does not generally need to be cut back unless you wish to remove it or thin it out. If required, the best time to cut back heavenly bamboo is generally considered to be mid to late spring. This will allow you to cut it back prior to new growth, but mean that any new growth which forms after pruning is not vulnerable to frost damage.

When pruning, aim to remove any obviously dead or diseased shoots, and thin the plant out, to improve its appearance. After cutting back, you should water, mulch and feed your plant, to encourage new growth.

Why is my nandina losing its leaves?

There are a few reasons why your nandina plant may be losing its leaves. It may be the case that the current growing conditions are not favourable to it – for example, the location is too cold or windy. Try moving your plant into a sunnier position, and make sure that it’s sheltered from wind.

If the soil is dry, you may need to water your plant more – particularly if you’re experiencing a period of drought. If this still doesn’t solve the problem, it is possible that your plant is infected with a virus.

Can you grow nandina in a container?

Nandina is very suitable for container growth – particularly the smaller, dwarf varieties. Although the plant is hardy and does not generally need to be moved inside over winter, planting it in a container will allow you to move it around, and reposition the colour in your garden.

For best results, you should plant your heavenly bamboo in a rich, organic potting compost, water it well, and make sure the pot has good drainage, to avoid it sitting in waterlogged soil. When repotting a nandina, make sure not to plant it too deeply – the top of the roots should sit level with the surface of the soil.

Is nandina domestica poisonous to dogs or cats?

Nandina domestica is poisonous to dogs and cats, and should not be ingested. All parts of heavenly bamboo are potentially toxic, as the plant produces hydrogen cyanide as it breaks down, but the berries are particularly dangerous, as pets are likely to try to eat them.

Symptoms of poisoning can include gastronomical upset, weakness, respiratory problems, tremors, seizures, and in extreme cases, coma and death. You should keep dogs and cats away from nandina domestica, and if you believe they’ve eaten any part of the plant, seek veterinary advice immediately.

Thankfully, incidents of nandina domestica poisoning are rare, largely due to the bitter taste of the cyanogenic glycosides in the plant, which discourages most animals from eating too much. Treatment is also highly effective if help is sought in time.

Can I prune sacred bamboo in summer?

It is not the best idea to prune sacred bamboo in the height of summer, as this is likely to affect flowering. Instead, prune in late spring after the last frosts, around April or May time, when it will be easier to avoid pruning new growth. You can also wait until early autumn after flowering has finished.

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April is a freelance writer who specialises in writing about home and garden design and the environment. She is an avid wildlife-enthusiast and adventure-seeker, and feels happiest when in the Great Outdoors.


Watch the video: How to hard prune bougainvillea. Overgrown bougainvillea pruning. Bougainvillea after hard pruning


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