"…and not for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder…"

Tips from J: Pruning

Uncategorized — d-ashes on June 26, 2003 at 9:39 am

As part of our ‘Things You Need to Know But Were Afraid To Ask’ Series, here
are some handy gardening tips from J.


OK, so maybe you’ve just bought your first house and you’re gazing out the
window surveying the boundaries of your glorious suburban fiefdom when it suddenly
hits you (mostly because you can no longer actually SEE out of the window anymore):
something has to be done about the shrubs! It’s a daunting task for the uninitiated,
not to mention a leading contributor to the heinous crime of “crepe murder.”
(More on this despicable hanging offense later) Basically, pruning bushes and
small trees can be accomplished in one of several ways based on what it is you
are trying to do, ie: what is the goal of pruning? Is it to reduce the size,
stimulate new growth, remove old flowers/branches/seed heads or create bizarre
Edward Scissorhands-inspired topiary shapes? Keeping your goal in mind will
help you select a pruning method. Also, a little knowledge about your victim,
er, specimen, will help you immensely. Many houses, especially older ones,
were planted decades ago with shrubs far too large for the space. (Let this
be a lesson when you are planting new things…when the tag says ?grows to ten
feet?, it ain?t blowin? smoke up your ass). Azaleas are a notorious example,
with many species growing to be over 8 feet high, too often planted within a
couple feet of the front porch. Privet and bamboo are two other plants that
are often planted as a hedge or screen by impatient gardeners because of their
rapid growth, only to ultimately torment them with their (you guessed it) RAPID
GROWTH. Even if, like me, you choose to cultivate the deceptively carefree-looking
?the vines are eating the house? look, and unless you happen to have an Astroturf
lawn and plastic hedges like the Brady?s, you?re gonna have to whack that stuff
down from time to time. So let’s start with the basics and work our way up
and out, just like you should when pruning: tools, timing, and technique.

TOOLS: You simply cannot do a good job of this using the
rusty pruners left by the previous owners in the garage behind the can of Bimini
Beige latex paint from 1979. Go to the hardware store and invest in a nice
pair of bypass hand pruners for branches 1/2 inch diameter or less (Felco is
the best, expensive and totally worth it, they can be resharpened and last forever)
a pair of “loppers” for branches 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, and a
pruning saw for anything bigger than that. Now I know Dave is dying to chime
in here and urge you on to the destructive power of the chainsaw, but I’m not
going to let it happen. Baby steps, baby steps… You will notice that nowhere
in this paragraph are the words “electric hedge trimmer.”
This is not an oversight.

TIMING: How many times have I cringed to see smiling, well-intentioned
yard monkeys lopping the ends off their azalea bushes on a lovely early Spring
morning (usually with aforementioned contraband electric hedge trimmers into
aforementioned bizarre Edward Scissorhands cube shapes)? Bad move, on many
levels aesthetic and otherwise, but primarily from a timing standpoint. Spring-flowering
shrubs, and this includes azaleas, bigleaf hydrangeas, forsythia, spiraea, quince
and others, should only be pruned IMMEDIATELY AFTER they bloom. If you hack
on them in late summer, fall or winter you will remove flower buds and reduce
flowering. Try not to prune except to do light grooming in the late summer
or fall, as this encourages new growth that might not have time to harden up
enough to withstand the cold of winter. Basically the safest thing to do if
you don?t know what you?ve got is to prune in the spring after everything has
bloomed. There are a few exceptions of plants that do best when cut back almost
to the ground because they bloom on new growth, but I?m not going to throw that
monkey wrench into your fragile machine works at this juncture. Deciduous trees
are best pruned in late winter AFTER they have lost all their old leaves and
before they get the new ones. If you are ?lucky? enough (as I actually consider
myself) to have a fence/house/pergola full of wisteria,
prune that sucka? back HARD after it puts on its glorious heady show in spring,
and then as needed to keep the neighborhood association from leaving nasty notes
and flaming bags of dog poop on your doorstep, knowing that fall and winter
pruning will remove buds but may be necessary to check rampant growth. Believe
me, you could cut that devil weed off at the ground, drill a hole in the stump
and pour gasoline in there and it would live to laugh in your face for the next
hundred years.

TECHNIQUE: (see pictures)

  • always cut upward-facing branches at a 45 degree angle to help shed water
    and prevent rot
  • always cut within 1/4 inch of an OUTWARD facing bud/branch when shaping
    and thinning at branch ends (that bud is where the new branch will form, so
    make sure it’s facing out and not into the shrub)
  • do NOT paint that “cut sealer” crap on your cuts….it’s bad juju buddy
    and can actually promote rot, so skip it
  • to thin a shrub with too many internal branches, cut 1/3 of them back to
    the ground or trunk (remember your angled cuts here especially to prevent
    trunk rot/disease) DON’T just shear them all off on one plane, you will make
    it worse by encouraging more growth at the tips, which cuts off more light
    to the interior of the plant
  • when cutting branches back to a main stem or the
    trunk, make sure you don’t cut into the “branch collar”–that’s the area where
    the branch joins the trunk, usually there is a little bulge there.
  • work from the inside out and the bottom up
  • if for some reason you are sick enough to want to make bushes look like
    balls, cubes, or cones, first seek therapy, then at least make sure that whatever
    bizarre shape you choose does not have the top branches overhanging the lower
    branches. You will kill the lower branches, if they don’t commit suicide
    first from the humiliation of being forced to look like something other than
    a plant.

…and now, a public service announcement about “crepe murder”:

NEVER, EVER EVER mutilate crepe myrtles in winter by hacking them back to look like
mangled amputees; this is NOT good for the trees (common
fallacy), and actually damages them not only aesthetically (nothing like those
freakish gnarled fists sprouting tiny whiplike branches too weak to hold their
heads up), but also healthwise by encouraging weak growth and sucker formation
at the base of the trunk. DON’T do it my friends…I’ll track your ass down
and whip it good with a hickory switch. (Duly noted that this may not be an
actual deterrent to all of you ;) )

Finally, if you’ve inherited a bloody mess of overgrown, oversized shrubs engulfing
the house, it’s OK to just pull them out and start over!! Old lady Smith’s
bad taste and judgment needn’t haunt you for the duration of home ownership.
I can tell you from personal experience that securing a chain around the base
of a shrubbus non gratis, hooking it up to the 4X4 and yanking
the sucker out by the roots can be a therapeutic (if slightly redneckish) act
of affirmation…it seems to enhance the experience if you do it wearing Daisy
Duke cutoffs, a straw cowboy hat and the longneck beer of your choice. Right
now I’m living on a planet called Texas which, based on my semiscientific calculations involving the ambient temperature, appears
to have a point in its orbit where it is approximately half a mile from the
freakin’ sun. Those of you lucky enough to live in the gardener’s paradise
that is Mississippi count your blessings!! Have fun and don’t forget to smell
the roses, which should be pruned after blooming for once-a-year bloomers and
in late winter for all-season bloomers.


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