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Tue, Jan. 21

Column: Cutting away the dead wood: It's pruning season

The pruning season officially starts now. Pruning is an important gardening task but, because of its surgical aspect, it can be daunting for many gardeners. In the next few paragraphs, I will set out some pruning basics to help those who aren't sure what to do and are afraid to take that first snip.

First, remove stakes and guy wires installed on trees planted a year ago. Trees that are allowed to sway will develop into sturdy, resilient plants. They will need these characteristics to defy our unrelenting mountain winds.

Next, prune out dead or damaged branches. It was my father-in-law, Harold Watters, who taught me a simple method to identify a dead branch on a plant. On any branch in question, scrape the bark off with your thumbnail. If the wood showing under the bark is green, that branch is alive. If the wood showing is white or brown, that branch is dead. Dead wood not only looks ugly, but it attracts insects, disease and wood-pecking birds into the yard. Cut away all dead wood.

Thin out branches on trees that have a history of disease or mildew. Reducing the mass of branches will improve air circulation and penetration of sunlight, which in turn will reduce the incidence of disease. Some trees are more prone to leaf problems than others. Keep an eye out for diseases on plums, cherries, peaches, willows and poplars.

Eventually I like to have every tree in my landscape pruned to at least 6'2" from the ground. Why that exact height? I don't like to duck when walking through the yard, so trees eventually find themselves limbed up to my height. Some trees take several years before they finally reach the height I like, but I patiently cut a few branches closest to the ground each year and soon have the tree I want.

There are two techniques for pruning the remaining branches on trees and shrubs, heading and thinning. Heading is cutting a branch back to a healthy bud that is pointing in the direction you want the plant to grow. This method is used mainly on evergreen shrubs, hedges and roses. Thinning is completely removing a shoot or branch either back to ground level or back to another main branch or trunk; no prominent stub remains. This is usually the best method for pruning trees. I don't have space here for sketches showing these proper cuts so make sure to ask for my handout, "Pruning Basics", the next time you visit the garden center. The photos are really helpful.

Now that you have the pruning basics, let's go over some important pruning don'ts.

• Don't prune spring bloomers until after they have bloomed. These include lilacs, forsythias, azaleas, rhododendrons and quince. During the winter months, these plants have been using all their energy to form flower buds. If you prune them now, all the buds will be lost, and there will not be enough time for the plants to grow new buds before spring. This means that your garden will not have those traditional, welcome flowers signaling an end to winter. Enjoy the blooms first and then prune back. The shrub will be happier and so will you.

• Another pruning 'don't' has to do with roses. It's a beautiful day; the pruners, saw and lopper are ready to go, and you make a move towards your Simplicity hedge. Stop! Don't do it. Wait until March to prune roses. Pruning roses too early results in extensive winter damage to canes which can leave you with a stub of a shrub. The time to prune roses is in March when our weather begins to warm. I promise to write the best pruning techniques for roses when the time is right.

This is the time to cut back all other perennials in the garden. Go ahead and prune back summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush, Russian sage and rose of Sharon. All of them will enjoy a nice winter cut.

Don't allow your landscape to over-grow into a jungle so dense that it hides your home. If this describes your yard, you need to thin plants out throughout the landscape. It can be difficult to be objective about landscaping that you walk past day in and day out. If you're not sure if a plant should go, bring a photo to the experts at the garden center and ask for advice.

If you're unable to identify a plant so that you're not sure if it should be pruned now, just snip off a branch, bring it to the garden center, and let a professional identify it for you. I especially enjoy helping clients who bring in full-sized photos of a plant. I mark right on the photos which branches to be cut back and which need to be removed. It helps me to give precise directions and clients take home a how-to of their specific trees.

When pruning is completed, it is time for winter applications of dormant oil, lime sulfur and tree paints. These sprays kill any eggs or adult insects that have wintered over and are on hold until spring arrives when, once again, they will begin their destructive feasting. This is especially important for young trees or trees that had problems last year with insects or disease. On fruit trees, this is a must if you want any chance of a decent crop next year.

"How to Prune Fruit Trees" by R. Sanford Martin is the best book on pruning. It is easy to read and understand. No fancy pictures, just easy-to-follow sketches with down-to-earth explanations, and very affordable at the garden center. Of course, you can always stop by for a one-on-one consultation. My staff and I are available with our professional advice, suggestions and those motivating, pat-on-the-back words of encouragement.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

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