It’s January, So Let’s Start Pruning

11/23/2012 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Outdoor Living, Plant Care

I could have used one of my pruning photos, but isn’t my new Scottie puppy cute? She is so cute and she knows it. This is Bailey’s first winter and she is at that stage where every day is an exciting new adventure. Also, thanks to Bailey, like it or not every day is a new adventure for Baja, our 9-year-old chocolate lab!

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The final snow cover on my garden has melted away and the air is beginning to dry. These warm days and freezing nights can wreak havoc on concrete items left out of doors. It is best to cover these pieces or bring them into the garage or garden shed to keep water out of them. Fountains are at greatest risk because fountain bowls with standing water that is allowed to freeze could sustain devastating cracks.

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Pruning should be completed between January and March. To many of you, because of its surgical aspect, pruning is a daunting task. You’ll be glad to know that the end result is very forgiving. Even if you make a mistake while following these simple instructions, the plant will be able to grow its way out of your gaff.

Recently planted trees must be allowed to sway to develop the sturdy, resilient 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 and damaged branches. Dead wood not only looks ugly, but 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’ actually is a 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, “Pruning Basics”, has photos that are helpful. Visit the garden center to get a free copy of this simple pruning guide.

When pruning is complete, trees are ready for an application of dormant oil and tree paints. Not all oils are the same. Some are thicker than others and can actually damage plants’ foliage during our warm winter days. The “All Season Spray Oil” at my garden center is highly effective at killing insects and their eggs, yet safe for our plants and the environment.

This is the least expensive bug killer you’ll use in 2011. One bottle is less than $15 and should be enough for the average home landscape. Winter spray oils are especially important for young trees or those that had problems last year with insects or disease. Oils are a must on fruit trees if you want any chance of a wormless crop.

I like to have every tree in my landscape pruned to at least 6’2” from ground level. Why that height? Well, I am 6’2” tall and I don’t like to duck when walking through 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. Prune back summer blooming shrubs like butterfly bush, Russian sage, and rose of Sharon. All will benefit from a nice winter cut. If in doubt, cut a plant back by 1/3 or to your desired height. This might be a haircut to create a more shapely plant, or it could be a hard prune to get a plant back under control. Keep your pruning shears away from spring blooming shrubs, such as forsythias, which already have formed buds.

There is one tool that makes a difference between a pruning job made hard and a project that is a joy to complete; it 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 my favorite pruning tool is a ladies’ short-handled lopper. The short handles easily allow more leverage than a large set of loppers. Additionally, the smaller sizes are very reasonably priced. Not only do the lighter weight and smaller size make for easier handling, 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.

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My spring gardening class series begins today, appropriately with “Pruning 101”. If you want more personalized help than found in a newspaper column, this is a good opportunity to pick up some detailed expertise.

Gardening classes are free, held every Saturday in spring at 9:30am. Class listings are posted on my website, and on my garden center Facebook page, where you can become a ‘Fan’.

Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.