Berberis thunbergii, known as Japanese Barberry, has become a very common shrub in my area. Cultivars with dark burgundy leaves (like Berberis thunbergii ‘Royal Burgundy’) were very popular when I was starting my garden, but more cultivars have been introduced over the years, including those with rosey or gold leaves.
I’m not sure that I’d plant a barberry if I was starting out again, as it seems to suck up all the nutrients from the soil around it and the very sharp thorns make it unpleasant to work around. Additionally, some varieties of Barberry are considered invasive in North America, spreading into wild areas after escaping home gardens (quite possibly through seeds carried by birds).
However, it grows at a reasonable pace, isn’t prone to pests and diseases, and the leaf colour is nice, providing contrast in the garden, so I’m planning to keep my two (for now). It likes full sun and is hardy in about zones 4 to 8.
Barberry doesn’t grow particularly quickly, but over time, it does get bigger. What was a cute plant in a 1 gallon or 5 gallon pot can grow to become a substantial shrub. I don’t want mine to overpower the other plants they’re planted next to, so I cut them back every so often.
The one in the front of our house was pruned back quite hard a couple years ago, so it’s not massive, but it was still getting a bit bigger than I wanted it:
I took my secateurs and cut back 4 to 6″ overall, trying to keep it generally in a rounded shape:
There was one larger branch growing out an ungainly angle, so I cut it back, very clearly revealing the shockingly bright yellow sap of the plant:
This photo gives you a good look at the thorns as well–I wore gloves and long sleeves for this job!
While I used my secateurs, if I had a larger Barberry to deal with it likely would’ve been easier to use a pair of hedge shears* for most of it, reserving the secateurs just for cutting the larger branches.
When I was done, the plant didn’t look remarkably different from when I started, just more compact:
I like to do this kind of pruning in the spring, once the plant has started to leaf out. You can do it just about any time, but I would avoid late summer, as any new growth won’t have time to harden off before winter frosts descend. For all shrubs, the recommendation is not to cut them back by more than 1/3 every year–this is good practice to follow. It may mean that sometimes it will take you a couple years to bring an overgrown shrub back to a desirable size, but it’s better for the health of the plant.
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