Column: New Year signals the time to prune shrubs
As usual, as we welcome in another new year, we kick off another pruning season. Properly pruned trees and shrubs are critically important to good landscape health. So go ahead and prune back summer-blooming shrubs like butterfly bush, Russian sage, and rose of Sharon, and also include fruiting trees, berry bushes, and grapes. While all of these plants enjoy nice winter cuts, be sure to avoid forsythias and other spring bloomers, which already have buds beginning to form.
Your objective is to complete pruning by the end of February, but there's no need to be uncomfortably cold spending a long day outdoors pruning everything while temps are low. We have plenty of time to prune back one tree or bush at a time on bright winter days.
Don't worry about pruning mistakes; you can't make any of lasting consequence. Plants will grow their way out of any pruning blunder. Fertilize after this year's pruning projects and new spring growth will mask the scars left by misguided pruners. So fear not, get out there and start cutting your way across the landscape!
First, remove stakes and guy wires installed with trees planted a year ago.
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.
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 later in the season on roses.
Thinning is completely removing a shoot or branch to ground level, to the trunk, or to another main branch. After the cut, no prominent stub should remain. This is usually the best method for pruning trees.
"Ducks" are not welcome in the garden! You should not have to worry about hitting your head on a low hanging tree branch on your property. Feel free to prune trees to above head height. I have found that smaller trees may 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.
When pruning is complete spray trees and shrubs with an application of "All Season Spray Oil." It's highly effective at killing insects and their eggs, yet safe for plants and our environment. This is the least expensive bug killer of the season. A bottle is $19.99 and enough for the average home's landscape. All Season Oil is especially important for young trees or trees that had problems last year with insects or disease. It is a must on fruit trees if you want a decent crop this coming season.
I don't have space here for how-to sketches showing these proper cuts but my free handout, "Pruning Basics" has photos that are really helpful. Just ask for it the next time you visit the garden center.
My Facebook fans have commented on videos of some of my pruning projects. "How to Prune Russian Sage" and a second, entitled, "A Pruner's Guide to Butterfly Bushes," were well received and much appreciated. The videos are at www.facebook.com/watters1815. Follow the garden conversation by "liking" the page and you will be notified when new gardening information is on site. Feel free to share helpful gardening tips with
your fellow gardeners through the page as well.
Plant of the Week: Mediterranean pink heath is a lover of cold weather. It is evergreen most of the year except in winter when the tops of the green branches are covered with bright bell-shaped flowers that explode in an enticing pink. You will find this charmer at garden centers only during the pruning season; by the end of February, the crop is gone. This is a very cheery plant for the front door even when left in its grower's pot, but it's even more festive when added to your pansy and kale plantings. This 12-inch plant has a way of lifting the spirit even during the darkest winter days.
Gardening Class: This morning, beginning at 9:30, I will be cutting back the landscape here at Watters Garden Center while teaching the do's and don'ts of proper pruning for local gardeners. Bring or wear your garden shoes if you'd like to participate in some hands-on pruning. Like all of our Saturday sessions, the class is free.
Next week's class is "Healthy Happy Houseplants the Easy Way." If you have struggled with your indoor plants let us take the mystery out of this easiest form of gardening. Join us for a morning of learning fun.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Ken Lain can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, or contact him through www.wattersonline.com.