Originally Published: January 15, 2010 9:59 p.m.
The New Year opens the door on that window of time to cut back ornamental grasses, trees and perennial shrubs. If left unpruned, plants can become overgrown, unruly and downright ugly. My goal with this week's column is to simplify this yearly gardening task.
Because of its surgical aspect, pruning is daunting for many gardeners. Not to worry. Even if you make a mistake while following these simple instructions, you'll be close enough to your objective that the plant will be able to grow its way out of your gaffe. Now, isn't that a comfort?
Recently-planted trees must be allowed to sway to ensure they develop into sturdy, resilient plants - characteristics essential to defy our unrelenting mountain winds. So pruning trees planted a year ago begins by removing stakes and guy wires.
Whether trees are young or established, prune out dead or damaged branches. Dead wood not only looks ugly, but it attracts insects, disease and wood-pecking birds. Next, thin out the branches of those 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. Plum, cherry, peach, willow and poplar trees are prone to leaf problems and really benefit from this pruning. My motto is: if in doubt, thin it out.
Thinning is the method of pruning that is the best for most trees. It means to completely remove a shoot or branch to ground level, to another main branch, or to the trunk. The objective is to leave no prominently visible stub. I don't have space here for how-to sketches showing these proper cuts, but my handout titled "Pruning Basics" has photos that are helpful. Visit the garden center to get a copy of this simple pruning tip sheet.
When pruned, trees are ready for 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 the environment. This is the least expensive bug killer for this season. A bottle is under $20 and one should be enough for the average home landscape. Dormant oil is especially important for young trees or those that had problems last year with insects or disease. On fruit trees, this is a must if you want any chance of a wormless crop.
A simple-to-use book on the subject is "How to Prune Fruit Trees" by R. Sanford Martin. No fancy pictures, just easy to follow sketches with down- to-earth explanations. It is easy to read, easy to understand, and very affordable at the garden center.
I like to have every tree in my landscape pruned to at least 6'2" from ground level. Why that height? Well, at 6'2" I am the tallest person in my family and I don't like to duck when walking around my yard. That's why all the trees in our landscape eventually find themselves limbed up to my height! There is no right or wrong here, just prune your trees so they are visually appealing and comfortable for you.
This also is the time to cut back all perennial shrubs in the garden. So prune back summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush, Russian sage, and rose of Sharon. All will benefit from a nice winter cut.
The one tool that makes a difference between a pruning job made hard and a project that is a joy to complete is a pair of good quality hand-pruners. For those of us with the onset of arthritis, sore joints and other aches, I suggest the ladies-sized pruners. I'm not embarrassed to say that my favorite pruning tool is a ladies' short-handled lopper. The short handles easily allow more leverage than a large pair of loppers. Additionally, the smaller sizes are very reasonably priced. Not only do the lighter weight and smaller size make them easier to handle, they also keep me from tackling branches larger than I should. When shopping for a new pair of pruners, ask for help at your favorite garden center, and then sample the different sizes and styles. Corona brand has a couple of styles I like and the quality of blades that can be sharpened for many seasons of use.
Beginning the end of this month I will be hosting a series of gardening classes. They will be held on Saturdays at 9:30am in the greenhouses at Watters Garden Center. This Saturday's class is titled "Pruning 101." The hands-on pruning aspect of this class always generates some lively conversation! Next Saturday is one of the most popular classes each year: "Wildflowers Unleashed." All topics are posted on my website, www.wattersonline.com; the 'Classes for the Taking' link on the left will lead you to the class schedule.
This is the season for helping the local charities my wife and I support. They include, but are not limited to, the Sharlot Hall Museum, Elks Opera House, Rotary International and the Crisis Pregnancy Center. We have a way that you can support these causes while getting help for your landscape. A popular service offered at our nursery is that the staff makes house calls. For $75, you can have an onsite visit to address any issues within your landscape. Questions are answered about pruning, soils, tree placement, and more. Your money buys expert local gardening advice and you'll receive several coupons for use later in the season. Because 100 percent of the house call fees go into the Watters Charitable Fund, they are given back to our community. Help us help our communities as we help you with your landscape. Truly a win-win for all of us.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."