Column: Don't be afraid - Pruning season officially starts, now
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, because they aren't sure what to do, are afraid to take that initial snip.
First, remove stakes and guy wires installed with trees planted a year ago. Trees must be allowed to sway to ensure that they develop into sturdy, resilient plants. They need these characteristics to defy our unrelenting mountain winds.
Next, prune out dead or damaged branches. Dead wood not only looks ugly, but it attracts insects, disease and wood-pecking birds.
Thin out branches on trees with histories 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.
Plums, cherries, peaches, willows, and poplars are prone to leaf problems and really benefit from this pruning.
I like to have every tree in my landscape pruned to at least 6-foot-2 from the ground. Why that exact height? Well, I don't like to duck when walking around my 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 by patiently cutting a few branches each year I soon have trees with the clearances 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 to ground level or 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 how-to sketches showing these proper cuts but my handout, "Pruning Basics," has photos that are really helpful. Just ask for it the next time you visit the Garden Center.
This is the time to cut back all other perennials in the garden. Go ahead and prune back summer blooming shrubs such as butterfly bush, Russian sage and rose of Sharon. All of them will enjoy a nice winter cut.
I'm embarrassed to say, but my favorite pruning tool is a ladies' short-handled lopper. The short handles allow more leverage so it's not as awkward and clumsy as a large set of loppers, and at $34.99, is reasonably priced for a nice tool.
A good hand pruner is a must in every gardener's arsenal of equipment. A lot of pruner for the money is Bond's bypass pruner at $17.99. It is light enough that a man can use it all day and not get tired, and it's small enough to fit a woman's hand. It definitely is one of my favorite pruners to use on local trees and shrubs.
The best book on pruning, "How to Prune Fruit Trees" by R. Sanford Martin, 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.
When pruning is complete, trees are ready for winter applications of dormant oil and tree paints. Not all dormant oils are the same. Some are thicker than others and can actually damage plants in our warm winter days.
I handpicked the dormant oil at my Garden Center because it's highly effective at killing insects and their eggs, yet safe for our plants and our environment.
This is the least expensive bug killer of the season. A bottle is $14.99 and one bottle is enough for my home's landscape.
Dormant oil 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 this next season.
I will host a series of garden classes beginning the end of this month that will run through the spring season. Classes are every Saturday at 9:30 a.m. in the greenhouses at Watters Garden Center.
My Feb. 7 class is titled "Pruning 101 and Composting for Better Gardens." Join me for this hands-on pruning and composting class if you need help with either of these topics.
To see the subjects of this spring's garden classes, check out my website at wattersonline.com under the 'garden classes' link to the left of the page.
If you can't wait for the class, keep in mind that my staff and I make house calls. For $50 you can have an on-site visit on all issues in your landscape, including pruning. Not only does your money buy expert local gardening advice but you also receive several coupons for use later in the season. Because all house call fees go into the Watters Charitable Fund, they go back to our community. Truly a win-win for all of us.
Until next week, I'll see you in the Garden Center.
Ken Lain says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes." For personal advice Ken can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Rd, Prescott, or contact him through the web at www.wattersonline.com.