Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Now that the leaves are down I can see

And all I’m dying to do is get out there and do a little pruning. Lift that underskirt up so that my hellebores get a little more sun, remove those three branches so the pear tree actually has a shape, and cut a hole into that canopy so that a little more sun shoots in. It’s tempting right? Especially since, like everyone else on the planet, I get my tools sharpened in the fall. What? You don’t get your tools sharpened? Shame on you, how do you expect them to keep working when you’ve used those clippers on everything including ripping open the plastic pots on root bound discounted perennials.  I always sharpen my tools at the end of the season, first because they deserve it – they’ve worked so hard for me all year long – and secondly, because I’m itching to get out there and do some pruning.

Truth of the matter is that now is not really the best time to prune. One needs to wait, hiddeous right? The problem is pruning triggers and directs new growth in a plant. When parts of a plant are pruned off the plant uses its energies to produce new stems and leaves and if that happens before the plant is truly dormant, it can stimulate plants to push new growth that most definitely will not have a chance to harden off before cold weather arrives. Nor will the wounds that happen when a plant is pruned have time to heal. Now I know it’s been snowing and bitter cold, so we really don’t need to be worried about warm days pushing new growth, but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

I know it feels weird not to be able to go out there and whack back that callicarpa after it’s done doing it’s thing, but it would be so much happier if you waited until late winter when it’s sap isn’t still flowing.

Here are a few of the basic pruning rules, now there are whole books dedicated to this subject, so don’t bit my head off when I generalize please.

The first pruning rule you need to remember is this, prune spring blooming things right after they flower. It makes sense right? Not like the year my helpers sheared all my spireas for me so nicely in the spring, neatly removing every single bloom on every single plant. Sigh.

Second rule, if you must to do pruning before the spring comes, make sure you prune in late, late winter and only prune fall or late summer flowering trees and shrubs and evergreens. These can also be pruned in late spring but think things through (in otherwords, even though they are evergreens, you might want to prune the rhododendrons after they bloom.)

Three: When it comes to fruit trees everyone has a point of view and they all disagree. I have been pruning in late winter for a while, and this year the apple crop was obscene, bending the trees to their knees almost. There is a different program called the Lorette method that recommends you prune all the pencil thick diameter branches once in mid August to the third leaf. The shortening  days send a signal to the plant to not bother making new vegetative growth but to work on setting fruiting spurs instead. Then if you want in the winter you can cut the remainder of those remaining branches all the way back to where the fruit spurs have set.

Four: If it’s damaged, diseased, dead or broken, it can and should be removed at any time of the year. And if it’s going to break off when covered with snow, remove that as well.

I too want to whack back my glossy abelia, beauty berries, hydrangeas, sumacs, etc, but if I wait and be patient, my trees and I will both be happier, when I get out there in February and start sawing things off. However, you're better off waiting until the summer to prune maples, birches, dogwoods, walnuts, and elm trees because these trees can ooze sap when pruned in the winter, and that sap can freeze.

Now it’s true that I NEVER prune buddleia in the winter any more after one year when I cut them all back only to have them all die to the ground. And it wasn’t even that cold that year. I tell people I have no scientific proof but I believe that wounding the plants via pruning allows cold to whisk up into their cells and stresses them out. 

I also don’t prune my roses in the fall or the winter. There’s going to be winter dieback, so I’ll just be going it again in the spring and why do things twice if you can do it once right? I wait until the forsythia start to bloom to signal me that it’s chopping back time.

Just in case you are curious, there are four different approaches to pruning roses.

The first method is called hard pruning where the canes are severely cut back to about 4 – 5 inches tall. This method is recommended for newly planted rose bushes, Hybrid Teas that are used for exhibition, and for rejuvenating weak or neglected roses.  I have only hard pruned a rose once in my life, one that was out of control I whacked it back to rejuvenate it and it promptly died on me so I’m too traumatized to try that again.

The next method is called moderate pruning. With this system you cut each rose canes back by about one half. This is how most people prune teas roses Hybrid Teas and Floribundas, but since I don’t have teas, I don’t do it either.

The third method is light pruning, where stems are only cut back to less than two-thirds of their length. If you have limited space and are growing big roses this method is not for you according to the experts, however, very vigorous roses can benefit from light pruning.

The last method is called the easy-care method and it sounds horrifying, You grab your hedge trimmers, and firing them up simply cut the bush in half, straight across. You don’t have to worry about cutting back to a leaf node or any of that other gobbly gook, you just leave all wood as is. If, of course, you can’t help yourself and you want to remove all the dead wood, go ahead, but the experts that experimented with both the moderate and easy care method, report that there are no noticeable differences later on in the growth and bloom of the bush. Even if you leave the dead wood in place.

I recently read a great article that mentioned the old cut branches on a diagonal rule was ridiculous for roses. I loved it. Basically it said that it’s too hard to figure out where the branch is going to be to worry about whether the water will run off or not and that it’s more important to make a small straight across cut then to leave a longer diagonal cut which is a big wound for the rose to heal.

I love it, it’s all terribly sacrilegious isn’t it?

Frankly, I’m terrible when it comes to pruning my roses. I just hack back things that are getting out of control or have whipped me in the face or tangled the legs of the chickens, or blocked the window. The rest I leave alone. Although I do thread the climbers through the veggie garden fence and sometimes even remember to tie them in place.

So what’s a girl to do with all her freshly edged clippers, secateurs and loppers and brand new pruning saw? Well darlings, have you looked at the rest of the garden? I’m sure there’s oodles of stuff to snip into little pieces and either let fall back into the beds or lug over to the compost pile.

I actually spent time yesterday clipping lengths of twine (a wonderful holiday stocking stuffer for a gardener by the way) and tying my roses up to the fence to make sure they do their absolute best and to prevent damage from the winter winds that were whipping around me. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment until my fingers got too numb to move.

Paige Patterson actually found both La Belle Epoch and Brookyln tulips this fall and can not wait for the spring to see how they fare.

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