Friday, March 15, 2013

To Prune or Not To Prune ... Sweet Woodruff

Sweet Woodruff in March 2013 - battered but unbowed
UPDATE - As time goes by and I see how a plant performs in the garden from year to year, my views may change and I'll update old posts accordingly. That's what happened with sweet woodruff. I started experiencing dieback on patches of this plant in both winter and summer. I suspect it's a bit difficult to grow in the hot and humid Southeast and especially the Deep South. At the same time, when I started to try to dig up patches, I found a disturbingly elaborate web of roots that seemed to occupy the entire top layer of soil. I could literally lift the plant and the soil would come with it like a piece of carpet. So I ended up evicting sweet woodruff entirely from my garden. Fortunately, unlike Ajuga or Geranium sanguineum at least it had the decency to leave politely and not try to make too many repeated comebacks. I've since shifted my gardening more toward natives, especially vis-a-vis spreading groundcovers. If you do grow this plant in the U.S., please check to make sure it's not invasive in your region, as might be the case particularly in the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest and parts of New York State.

So far, I'm still loving Sweet Woodruff (a.k.a. Galium odoratum). Not loving it anymore. Shovel-pruned it.

I first planted some last spring, it survived our scorching summer last year, so I split off some last fall, and both the division and a new plant that I purchased from a nursery last autumn have done well and seem to be growing and expanding.

(That's opposed to other 'groundcovers' I've purchased that have either (a) died or (b) covered very little ground so far.)

So that's why I sang Sweet Woodruff's praises a couple of months ago. At the time, the plants were welcome shades of green in an otherwise relatively brown and bare landscape.

Well, I'm still enamored with the plants, but they weren't quite as evergreen as I'd hoped, at least not in our average zone 7 winter. Our coldest temps were in the high teens this winter, but most nights were in the 20s or 30s.

Anyways, my question is this -- For anyone who grows or has grown Sweet Woodruff, do you prune off the old tattered foliage or if you don't do anything will the plant shed the old foliage on its own as the year progresses.

Lots of healthy new Sweet Woodruff foliage emerging from underneath the messy mop of foliage pictured above. Should I trim away the old growth or will it fall away on its own (and how long would that take?) as this new foliage takes center stage?

I only have the three small Sweet Woodruff patches right now (actually one small patch, two tiny patches), so I certainly wouldn't mind clipping off the old growth this year, but I have two concerns:

1) Perhaps the old growth is there to shelter and protect the new growth as it emerges? After all, no one's pruning Sweet Woodruff in the wild.

2) Alternatively, if the old foliage will persist throughout the year and it's better to give it a haircut to let the new foliage have its place in the (partial) sun, that's good to know before I let Sweet Woodruff run rampant and find myself faced with the task down the road of pruning an acre of last year's Sweet Woodruff foliage on my hands and knees.

Ergo, I welcome your opinions, suggestions and personal experiences on this edition of To Prune or Not To Prune! Thanks :)


  1. I have grown Sweet Woodruff for as long as I can remember, and I don't recall ever pruning it. Like most plants, when the new green growth comes out, the older, tattered leaves will disappear, but pruning it is okay it if you want it to have a tidier appearance. In Zone 7, and at this time of year, with spring just around the corner, I don't think the new growth is in dire need of protection. I don't see the problem with a few brown leaves, though. It's just a natural process.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dottie.

      I do try to practice a somewhat naturalistic and laissez-faire style of gardening, but I've also realized that I like some degree of order in the garden.

      For instance, the first couple of years I gardened, I would cut down cosmos stalks in the fall and let them fall where they lay. I thought - "Well, this is the natural process. They'll soon decompose into the soil."

      Spring came and the cosmos stalks were still sitting there.

      The lesson I learned: Yes, the cosmos stalks (and I suppose nearly everything else that was once living) will *eventually* decompose into the soil, but in the meantime, it may not look very "nice" and may get in the way if you're try to plant and tend other plants and flowers in the same area.

      Of course, if I had many, many beds and/or a woodland area, I'd surely let many plants take their natural course. But right now, with only a few beds, I'm trying to have a sort of "managed-naturalistic" look.

      Over on Google+ some folks have echoed your statement that the older leaves will eventually disappear, but I'm wondering whether that will happen in April or whether it would take into June, for instance? I guess maybe the only way to find out will be to keep a close eye on one clump and see what happens!

  2. Here in Connecticut, I cut mine back when it looks torn and tattered. Then I hope it returns from the root. So far, so good. Good luck, Aaron.

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Lee. Good to know that cutting back works for you! Do you cut it in fall or spring?

  3. Aaron here in zone 5b in central NY I do not prune sweet woodruff and it grows quickly once it warms....mine is a great drift now under an ash growth seems to swallow anything tattered.

    1. Thanks for the input, Donna.

      I may follow your lead and leave mine unpruned as an experiment to see how long it takes for the new growth to dominate...

      I appreciate your perspective!

  4. Yes.


    If I have a long fall with decent working weather, I cut it then. If a hard winter comes early and prevents my fall cleanup, I cut back in the spring. If there's anything left to cut back.

    1. Thanks Lee. Hope your Sweet Woodruff makes a good comeback this year. I've decided to wait (for at least a little while) before pruning to see how long it takes the new growth to dominate or the old growth to disappear.

  5. this is 2017, and I put Sweet Woodruff in planters and covered them for the winter, which was nasty anyway, I want to know if I should prune the three pots or wait and see.

    1. If the foliage looks bad and it bothers you, I think you can probably prune it away. If the plant survived the winter in a pot, you'll probably see new growth soon.

      You don't say where you garden, but remember that it's much harder for a plant to overwinter in a pot or planter (where it's surrounded by cold air) than in the ground where it is the insulation of all that earth.


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