Spring Pruning


The day you put a plant in the ground is the first day of a relationship.  If you plant cosmos, that relationship constitutes one season.  If you plant a tree, that relationship might survive for generations.  If you plant shrubs, you could have a good many years of pleasure ahead of you-provided you prune.  Woody shrubs, left to their own devices, go to rack and ruin.   They spend no end of effort piling on enough wood to send the tips of their branches to the sky.  What is the big attraction of the sky?  No competition for light, air, and rain. No shrub feels any inclination to bloom where you want to see blooms-at eye level, that is.  Plants grow with survival in mind.  Should you have another idea in mind, wade in.  Participate.


Shrubs will grow sideways, around an obstacle.  They will sprout back, if cut to the ground.  They will survive the indignity of a homeowner with a hedge trimmer gone amok.  They will survive, even though the overall shape may be ungainly, or sheared to within an inch of its life.  The instinct to live is strong.  Lucky for me, and every other gardener who has learned on the job.  Pruning a hydrangea is not hard-it just requires the patience to consider every branch, before you cut.  I prune each branch, one at a time.

A well pruned hydrangea looks like it has had a shag haircut. Every branch has its our airspace. This means some branches get last year’s flowers cut off-only. Other branches get 8″ removed. Others get 16″ removed. Some old and thick branches in the middle get cut even harder, so air and light can reach down in to as many branches as possible.  Some gardeners prune their Limelight hydrangeas to within 14″ to 24″ of the ground, forcing them to produce basal shoots which originate underground. This method tends to produce a shorter shrub, with fewer and larger flowers.  I dislike cutting this hard-it takes so long for the shrub to regain a natural and airy shape.  I would rather have lots of flowers, than a few gigantic flowers.  I would rather plant the shorter growing version of Limelight- “Little Lime” – than prune a Limelight too hard.


I like my Limelight hydrangeas tall, and I like lots of flowers. My yews are 48″ tall at this end of the garden, and the arborvitae are 14′ tall.  The hydrangeas grown 6′ to 8′ tall-perfect for this spot. For good flowering from top to bottom, the lower branches need to be left long, and the top branches need to be shorter. The finished shape should be very loosely pyramidal, or like an egg on its side.  Step back frequently, to see how things are shaping up.  This hydrangea blooms on new wood, so no matter how you prune, you will get flowers.  Shearing a branch will encourage that branch to produce multiple shoots below the cut.  Thicken up, and out.  As long as the exterior shape is loosely described, the shrub will prosper.  Shearing deciduous flowering shrubs may take less time, but produces less than desirable results.  Renovating shrubs that have been sheared takes a long time.  One cut at a time-this is my advice.  Invest in a great pair of pruners-this makes the work easier.  The moment that all I can hear is the birds, and the action of the pruner blades bypassing each other, is a spring gardening moment I treasure.

pruning-roses.jpgI do grow a few shrub roses.  Sally Holmes, Carefree Beauty and Earthsong.  I have read lots of articles about pruning roses, none of which I have paid much mind to.  I stop dead heading my roses in mid-August.  I actually love the rose hips in the fall and winter.  In the spring, when the buds swell, I prune. The swelling of the buds?  You will recognize swelling buds when you see them.  My roses bloom on the new shoots.  I never cut a branch back by more than 1/3rd.  I prune the entire collection of roses as if they were a single plant.  I leave them loose. Last fall I secured the summer’s growth of the climbing roses to the wall-not much needs to be done to them now.

rose-hips.jpgOccasionally I will hard prune an old climbing rose cane low to the ground.  This keeps new growth coming from the bottom. Pruning stimulates growth.  Pruning a climbing rose cane 6 feet off the ground will result in a rash of shoots.  A long stalk with a tuft of shoots on the top-not the best look. Any cane which you can train to grow horizontally will flower more heavily.  If you think about the where the sun and rain comes from, this makes sense.  Is the afore mentioned a guide to pruning roses-not really.  Every gardener has to deal with their roses one to one.  Look at them, and decide how to prune. I prune my roses so they have the best possible overall shape.  Most roses are very ungainly growers, so pruning for a good shape is not always so easy.  That’s why I grow asparagus with my roses.  The  ferny fronds conceal those awkward and ungainly branches.  Do I prune my asparagus over the summer-oh yes.  I keep them at a height which conceals those legs.  Does this affect my asparagus crop?  Maybe.  But everything in the garden is about choices.  I want great roses more than I want home grown asparagus.

beech-ferns.jpgI do not cut back my beech ferns in the fall.  The dead fronds mulch and protect the European ginger over the winter.  By April 1st, those fronds have cut loose from the crown.  I do not need to prune.  I rake them off.  A rubber rake does a great job.  My fingers do the best job.

european-ginger.jpgThe European ginger has already been busy, sending out new shoots.  A steel rake, or a size 8 boot can damage these tender new shoots.  One of the pleasures of the spring-the new growth.  Friable soil.  My housekeeping inside-rather rude and abrupt.  I just want to get the job done.  When I am cleaning the garden in the spring, I take my time.  I do it-gently.  I have a relationship with this garden that I intend to nurture.

Lifting a lower branch of a spruce, I see icy snow. The transition from winter to spring has been incredibly slow this year. Really shady spots in my garden are still frozen. The night temperatures are still below freezing.  Frozen ground, frozen branches-my advice is to let them be.

April 2 2013 (40)The hellebores are awake.  Last years foliage has collapsed in a heap on the ground.  Every day I think about cutting that old foliage away.  Clean and bare is not always the best situation.  The newly emerging flowers benefit from all that fluff. The transition from winter to spring can be a rocky journey.   Sometimes, the best thing to do is to do nothing.

hellebore-flowers.jpgLast year’s foliage protects those flowering stalks, ready to emerge.  A warm spell in March proved to be damaging.  The buds sensed it was time to grow.  Nature had a different idea in mind.  We have had a run of really cold weather, the past 3 weeks.  Some of the exposed buds on this plant are black with the rot produced by freezing temperatures.

uncovered-hellebore.jpgCutting away last years foliage  exposes new flower buds.  Very tender flower buds.  Just to look at them, you would know they are not armed against the cold.  I cut the dead leaves away, and put them back over the top of these buds.  It is too soon to clean here.  What constitutes better days?  Warmer nights.  The ground is still very cold.  It will be 2 months before the soil really warms up in my zone. Hellebores do not require warm soil, but the flowers will be damaged by night air temperatures in the mid to low 20’s.  They need all that litter on the ground over them.  It’s not time yet to wash and put away the blanket.

hellebore-seedlings.jpgI am shocked and pleased to see that I have hellebore seedlings sprouting.  I spent a few moments taking this in, before I covered them up.  I am not sure how long it will be, before I expose them to the light of the new season.  The pruning and the cleaning-all in good time.  A slow spring-this is what we have now.

Pruning Trees

March 30a 2013 (2) There are plenty of reasons to prune.  The branch of a tree, shrub, or rose may be dead, and need removal.  It may be growing across the sidewalk, and need some heading back.  An old lilac may be blooming only at the top, 15 feet above ground, and need rejuvenation.  Branches of shrubs that cross over each other, and rub off the bark is an invitation to disease or insect damage.  Intact bark protects the life inside.  Pruning can help keep woody plants vigorous, healthy, and beautiful.

Plants maintained as hedges require regular pruning. The lindens at the shop form a hedge the body of which is above ground.  The branches at ground level have been removed over the years so people may walk underneath them.  Regular pruning of the trees promotes a good framework of branches that represent the desired shape.  These lindens were overdue.  Though I am a serviceable pruner of shrubs and roses, this job asks for an expert.  Someone who knows how to safely navigate high above the ground, and someone who understands the consequences of each cut, deliberately pruning in anticipation of a desired result.
pruning-the-lindens.jpgTrees that are trained as an overhead hedge are pruned with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Anyone who has ever topped a shrub knows that the plant responds to a single cut with multiple sprouting shoots.  This results in a dense pattern of twigs on top, which blocks the light to the interior.  Every branch of a plant needs light.  Shrubs that are repeatedly cut back so every branch is the same length eventually decline on the interior, and will need more drastic pruning to restore them to health from the inside out.

Pruning trees in late winter means there will only be a short time before growth resumes, and the healing of the cuts can begin. Another reason to prune now is that the cuts will stimulate growth at a time of year when new growth is expected.  Trees actually stop growing and begin to go dormant in late summer.  This is part of the process by which they are eventually able to  go totally dormant, and endure the winter without injury.  I do not like to prune seriously at the end of the summer or in the fall-the plants should be going to sleep.  Not shocked into growth.  Pruning these trees the end of March will encourage dormant buds to flush out.

on-the-roof.jpgThe roof next to the trees turned out to be handy.  This perch, and a long and very sharp pole pruner, enabled Jack Richardson, owner of Guardian Tree Experts, to trim the inside flat sides of the lindens.


When the trees leaf out, those leaves will make a giant rectangle above ground.  They will represent this better next year than they will this year. Pruning that waits too long means more time will be needed for the trees to grow in how you envision.  The trees were originally planted far enough away from the building so the shape would be easy to see.  This also permits light to wash that dark wall.  The relationship of the sun to the shade is a feature of this space in the summer.

pruning-trees.jpgThe big cuts make it easy to understand the concept of lateral growth.  The thick branches are pruned back to a smaller branch which is already growing in the proper plane.  The smaller branch will benefit from the growth energy in the tree directed its way.  Dormant buds at this point will emerge, and grow into the space around the larger branch.

hedging-the-lindens.jpgThe overall vertical plane has been reestablished.  In a year, a decision can be made about whether to prune again, or wait until the following year.  That said, frequent and less drastic pruning makes for a quicker recovery time.  Regular pruning from the beginning helps to create a strong and healthy structure.

dying-tree.jpgThe ultimate pruning means taking a tree down to the ground.  This maple, suffering from girdling roots and severe injury from lightning has become a hazard.  The large left lateral branch is at such a near horizontal angle that the branch has begun to split.  The original wound never really healed, and now the tree has begun to rot.  No one could foresee the exact moment that this big tree will give way, but all of the signs are there.  This tree needs to come down.

taking-down-a-maple.jpgNorway maples are especially prone to girdling roots.  A root that encircles a tree trunk can eventually grow enough to strangle the tree.  At a certain point, the pruning of the offending root is too late to make a difference.  Every one of the maples on my property had significant girdling roots when I moved there.  Knowing that this tree would eventually die, I planted other trees around it.  The loss of a large tree can be devastating to the community planted underneath it.  This maple had been in serious decline for many years.  Very little remained of its crown.

There are 5 trees that were planted fairly close to the maple-2 magnolias, and 3 parrotias. Those trees had been in ground and growing long enough for their upper branches to reach the height of the lower branches of the maple. The time was right to take the maple down. The 5 remaining trees will prosper from the light, space, and less competition for water. They should grow very fast now; their filtered shade will be just what the garden underneath them will need.  Guardian Tree Experts in Ann Arbor-they do first rate work.  The trees are ready for a little spring weather.

Grooming for the Long Haul

I hear too often from people that their pots peter out in August. There is no need for that, barring your dog unearthing them, or a hailstorm. I usually take my pots apart in November, as I am just plain tired of taking care of them. But here’s my formula for longevity through August and beyond. First off, water, and water properly-which can mean, water even when you don’t feel like it. This means soak your pots, and then let them get dryish before you water again. Secondly, deadhead regularly; do not let you annual flowers go to seed.

Here’s the biology behind the scenes. Annual plants by definition are plants that grow, flower, and set seed in one season. An annual which has successfully set seed has no biological reason to continue to flower. For those of you who think annuals bloom so the world will be a more beautiful place, here here. These plants flower for the purpose of reproduction-to insure the continuation of the species. If you prevent an annual from setting seed, it will continue to flower. There are plenty of flowers which are sterile, and do not set seed; they are popular for exactly this reason. Trailing verbena, on the other hand, will go out of flower quickly, if it is not deadheaded.

july_31aaa_001Plants grow in, and the room can get crowded. If the giant leaves of this nicotiana are allowed to shade the petunia, said petunia will pout, and finally give up. Removing leaves, or branches so everyone has a sunny spot, is good group management. A pot or window box is no place for a bully running amok. No one will like the result-  least of all, you.

july_31aaa_011Try not to overwater. Put your finger down into the dirt. If the dirt sticks to you, there is probably enough moisture. Rotting leaves are unsightly. Worse yet, an environment that is too wet is an invitation to every fungus floating by, looking for a good home. Licorice likes dry conditions. Should you have been so bold to plant it next to an annual that loves water and more water, you’ve engineered a situation where individual plants in a community pot have to be watered on different schedules.  This is not tough, just time-consuming.

july_31aaa_015Annuals need pruning, just like shrubs and trees. Pruning the flowers from your coleus plants result in densely growing coleus. Pruning plants at different heights gives everyone breathing room. Once a group of plants are put together in one pot, or one area, they take on a collective life. Sun, water and space have to be shared. And whatever the individual plants, you want an overall shape that looks great. july_31aaa_017
Plants that are healthy resist disease. Healthy means properly watered, fed, pruned and managed. If you do get a fungus, remove the diseased portions as soon as you can. Remove lower leaves in the interiors of your pots to promote good air circulation. Prevention is a lot easier that treatment. Sometimes weather conditions foster disease; I will spray with a fungicide if I have to. Safer’s soap will get rid of some insect pests-the trick is to apply 3 rounds, not one. Spider mites are notoriously difficult to get rid of. I avoid certain types of mandevilleas as they are so prone to them.

july_31aaa_012My beloved boxwood hedge was attacked this spring by a fungus called Volutella-I was beside myself over the damage. I had to get an expert to identify it for me; I have never seen this on boxwood before. We cleaned out, and raked up every dead leaf, and pruned out every infected branch with shears that were disinfected after each cut. Next spring I will spray for it. Imagine being a greenhouse grower-where plant illnesses and insects can threaten a livlihood. Most growers that I know practice close inspection of their plants, so they catch problems early. They also feed their plants; strong plants resist trouble. Once every seven to ten days I make sure my pots are thoroughly watered, then I liquid- feed them with a water soluble fertilizer with a big middle number (15-30-15) to encourage good flower production. This acts like a shot of vitamin B-12. Then I hold off watering as long as I can, so the plants take up the nutrients, before they get flushed out by the next round of watering.

There will be those times when no amount of good growing practices and cultures will result in a good plant. Don’t be afraid to yank something that is clearly beyond rescue. Perfection applies only to diamonds and moments, remember?

Shear Bliss

trimmed1The ability to prune with true precision  is as much about a gift, as it is about the science.   The big science concept has to do with being able to establish a line level with the horizon, or perfectly horizontal-and its complementary-those lines exactly perpendicular to the horizon-or vertical. Mindy’s crew sets lots of vertical markers-the stakes in this pictures.  They use a level to set those stakes exactly vertical.

trimmed2The horizontal plane is determined with a set of lines, or strings.  There will be strings everywhere, side to side.  But there is plenty of gift involved here too.  I perfectly understand the math, but I cannot do this how they do it.   Every cut is made with giant, long handled shears-by hand.  The clip clip takes 7 people, an entire day; its a slow but sure process that I enjoy watching. Even the sound of the clip clip takes my blood pressure down at least 10 points.

trimmed3Shape, mass, and volume are very important design elements in landscape. This landscape is entirely geared to the shape, and level of the lawn plane.  Every other element has been established, based on that plane. The importance of the lawn plane is accentuated by the wide, overscaled  steel edger strip. Where beds and lawn are on the same plane, the edger is invisible; its function is to keep grass out of the planting beds.  In this case, the edging is a design element, clearly indicating a change of level. This very geometric change of level provides lots of interest in a very small space.  The boxwood pruned into long precise rectangles is a great foil to the sprawling shapes of the roses and perennials.

trimmed4Pruning level with the horizon requires attention to a form that may not exist in the space.  The land into which this landscape is planted falls from north to south, and it falls from east to west. To give you an idea of how much drop there is from the south to the north, I measured the height of my Hicks yews.  On the southern most end, they are four feet tall, give or take.  At the east end of the north side, they are nine feet tall; this is a lot of drop.  It was many years, growing those north end yews tall enough to prune. This boxwood is pruned level with the horizon. Pruning with the lay of the land produces an entirely different effect.  Level with the horizon gives a landscape a formal and serene aura.  As in, on even keel, or level-headed.  As my work life is as I have described a big fluid situation, I like the even keel feeling when I am in my garden.  This is a choice any gardener makes when designing.  What do you want from your space?

trimmed5This is my idea of a good place to be.