Elderberry Pruning

 Pruning your Elderberry Bush

Author Shannon @ ElderberryEdgeFarm 6/3/2021

Pruning Elderberry

The American black elderberry which is native to the Midwest and Eastern  United States may benefit from the occasional gentle pruning. No pruning is necessary until the bush has reached 2-3 years old. Let the elderberry grow and fill out during these years. After the plant is well established and wanting to spread is when pruning should be considered. If allowed to grow unchecked past year 3 an elderberry plant can become what some consider invasive but a few practices can easily curb this.

How to Stop an Elderberry Plant from Spreading 

Elderberry plants spread via it's root system, every spring the plant sends up new shoots a bit further from the original base. Thus a plant that once took up a two foot circle can expand greatly over the years as the root system spreads. A lawn mower can easily keep this in check. In spring when the shoots come up, mow them off. This will keep the elderberry from expanding past where you want it to be.

Spread More Elderberry Plants where YOU want 

Want more plants for other places? Instead of mowing the new elderberry shoots over, dig up the new elderberry shoots in early Spring when they are about 4-5 inches tall along with an equal section of the root that is coming from the mother plant, trim off some of the leaves, (the root you dug up with it can not support many leaves) pot it up and water until it recovers. After it recovers plant it where you want a new elderberry plant to grow. This not only controls the original elderberry from spreading but gives you more plants in different areas. 

Hard Pruning an out of control Elderberry Bush

One should hard prune an elderberry bush that has become out of control. If it is become to tall for you to reach the top berry clusters, or is just taking up to much space then a hard prune may be necessary. Hard pruning should be done in the dead of winter when the plant is dormant and most of needed nutrients are being stored in the roots. With sharp gardening shears, a sickle mower, or a weed eater with a blade on it, take the elderberry plant to the ground. In the area that the original bush was planted leave 2-3 inch stubs, this should be where the main root ball is. The stubs in the rest of the area should be at ground level. In the spring the whole area will once again pop up elderberry shoots. You MUST mow over the area where you took them to ground level and keep it mowed. The area with 2-3 inch stubs that you designated for the area that the elderberry plant can grow should NOT be mowed and will be your "new" controlled elderberry bush.    


Why Hard Pruning May NOT be for you 

Other than mowing around your elderberries and clearing out dead branches  elderberry pruning may not be something you need to be concerned about. Elderberry farmers often take elderberry bushes to the ground when pruning but just because they do is no reason to follow blindly without knowing why. The reasons why may not apply to your circumstances.  

Why Elderberry Farmers Prune their Elderberry Bushes

  1. To prevent plants from spreading and keep control of the height of the plant.
  2. To have more cuttings to sell. Elderberry cuttings are taken from first year growth and pruned to the ground plants have all first year growth.
  3. To help control any pests that have laid eggs on the stem of the elderberry, this means removing all debris from the field. 
  Why reason 1 may not apply to your situation..... Except for height your elderberry plant can easily be kept in check with a lawn mower. In the spring new shoots come up 3-5 feet from the base and are attached to the mother plant, if you do not mow these over the elderberry plant will get wider and wider until you can no longer reach the interior. If your plant is in a spot where you can allow the elderberry bush to spread your harvest will continue to increase as your plant size increases! You decide how far you will let the elderberry plant spread each spring with your mower.  Farmers who have their elderberry plants in rows can not decide how far to let the elderberry spread it is already been decided by the row width. Farmers have to keep the elderberry in check to be able to get down the rows with their equipment. This is one reason why per bush harvest numbers are low for farmers. With rows 10 feet apart the elderberry bush must continually be kept in check.  You can outdo the average pounds per bush if you let your elderberry bush spread, to a point of course.... you don't want a yard full of elderberries but an elderberry plant that covers an 8-10 foot diameter will give you a great harvest and will typically outperform an elderberry farmers per bush plant harvest average. 
  Why reason 2 may not apply to you. An elderberry plant will normally have quite a few new first year shoots that can be taken for cuttings every year. Every shoot that comes up in spring has the potential of being a cutting the next winter or a potted plant if you dig it up with a root section.  If you are not looking to have MAJOR cutting material then reason 2 for hard pruning may not apply to you either.
***NOTE, when taking elderberries to the ground pruning, your harvest the following year will suffer by about 20% and your harvest will be 2 weeks later than it could have been had you not. 
  Reason 3 may not apply to you if you have not had pests that attack your elderberry. When any plants are in a grouping it is a huge attraction for pests that love that plant. They lay eggs and immediately after hatching the young are at the preferred plant and feeding and the numbers can increase rapidly. When growing plants in mass pests can quickly get out of hand. When growing one or two plants this is not usually a concern. If one year you notice pests bothering your plant you may then consider taking it to the ground in the winter for the plants health. If this is the case be sure to remove all sticks from the area and all leaves, mulch, and twigs where more pest eggs may be lying. Burning or removing them from the property is optimal. 
All in all keeping your elderberry bush in check by mowing around it and taking out dead branches should be all that you ever need to do. Consider the reasons that elderberry pruning it is done and decide for yourself.