Pruning

oak

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Pruning is hard for me.  I am always reluctant to cut away bits of a living plant.  And yet I’ve learned that the cutting away nearly always catalyzes new growth; usually more vigorous and productive than what was removed.

Biologically, when a stem or branch is cut back, the plant releases hormones which activate all of the growth nodes further back down the plant so they begin to send out new shoots.  When you cut a stem of basil, two new branches will grow back from just below the cut, but new branches will also begin to grow where none were before along the rest of the stem.  Soon the plant has filled out with lush new growth.

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Basil

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When you remove spent flowers, the plant is mobilized to produce more buds and blossoms to replace them in the hopes of eventually setting seeds.  All flower gardeners know to “deadhead” the spent flowers every few days to keep their gardens full of blossoms.  Harvesting flowers to bring in and arrange and share keeps the garden productive through the season.

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The forest

The Forest before the storm…

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And still, I’m horrified to watch my friends who own the Homestead Garden Center deal with their leggy stock. They take perfectly beautiful blooming plants, those who have sat on the shelves a few weeks too long, and sheer them back; ruthlessly cutting off blooms and branches.  Then they plop them into the next size of pot with fresh soil, douse the whole thing with some Neptune’s Harvest, and move them back into the tunnel for a while.

Miraculously, those plants not only recover, but soon are covered in fresh, vibrant new leaves and buds.  What an amazing  process to watch unfold.  When I buy a plant, they often admonish me to cut it back hard when I transplant it; advice I too seldom take.

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We’ve loved our “forest” in the front yard since the day we first saw our house.  We loved the shade and the privacy it gave us.  We loved the huge old oaks, and all of the small dogwoods, hollies, and wild blueberries growing under them.  We loved the mushrooms growing among their knobby roots after a heavy rain, and the many birds they brought to the garden.  Although we didn’t much care for the families of squirrels digging holes and hiding acorns in the flower pots all autumn, they were also a part of the life of the forest.

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A neighbor's oak tree fell across our back garden in Hurricane Irene.

A neighbor’s oak tree fell across our back garden in Hurricane Irene, 2010.

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As much as we love old trees, and especially old oaks, I must admit that listening to the wind whipping through the great old branches heavily laden with leaves and nuts is a terrifying sound in the night.  A neighbor’s huge oak fell across the back yard in Irene, and gave us a clear visual of how long their reach can be when they fall.  Although it destroyed most of our orchard, and made a terrific mess of the yard, the house was spared.

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A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the Creek which took out three oak trees from our forest.

A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the Creek which took out three oak trees from our forest.

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Now, not even two years later, a freak June thunderstorm spun up waterspouts off the Creek and into our yard, felling three oaks from our forest.  They fell away from the house and into the street.  We were spared yet again, and the message was clear.

Time to prune in the forest.   Our trees had grown lopsided reaching for the sun.  Some were leaning, and all had a few dead or dying branches ready to fall in the next heavy wind.

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Arborists grinding pruned branches to return them to the forest as a thick mulch.

Arborists grinding pruned branches to return them to the forest as a thick mulch.

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The crew who cleaned up our trees in June returned this week with their chainsaws and climbing equipment.  After two long days of pruning, my beautiful trees look like strangers.  The floor of the forest is covered in bits of their wood and leaves, where many of the branches were ground up for mulch.  My forest garden is open to the full sun beating down in areas which have known only shade for decades.  I am still in shock, just observing, still trying to accept and appreciate the opportunity for change and transformation.

My good friend sat for a moment in silence when she first saw it last night.

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forest

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We had just spent the afternoon together walking around her garden.  She and her husband removed an oak in their front yard last year, and in its place built a new raised bed now full of flowers and vegetables.  Their tomatoes, rooted in the new soil and compost are now over 10’ tall.  Their Zinnias, full of butterflies, are head high.  We share the same struggles with gardening in this neighborhood, and try to share ideas that work and plants that grow well here.

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Zinnias and Monarch butterfly.

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She and her husband also showed me the oaks they saved by having them pruned.  Their majestic healthy oaks, all close to the house, are clothed this summer in a bright leaves and new growth. The wind moves through them easily now, and the scars of pruning are hidden, at least in high summer, by healthy new branches.

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I know our trees will recover in time, and by next summer will be covered again in beautiful green leaves.  I know that within a few years they will grow enough to once more give shade to the front garden.  I know the mulch the arborists left will protect and enrich the soil and allow for new understory growth.  I know that the shrubs still standing will benefit from the extra sunlight and grow like they’ve never grown before. And, I know that I can plant new things this fall in the open spaces.  The garden will evolve and will be beautiful once again.

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forest~

But in this moment, my eyes see the stubby remains of our once beautiful trees, naked and wounded, the ground around them covered in fresh wood chips and shredded leaves.

Nothing remains the same for very long in the garden.  This is the joy of gardening, and also the pain of it.  We gardeners are filled with joy to see buds swelling in February, opening into early spring flowers and baby leaves.  We are always disappointed when the garden is finally killed by frost.  We prune our dormant shrubs and fruit trees in late winter, knowing full well that new growth will follow in a few weeks.  Many plants flower on new wood, and so are constantly renewed by pruning.

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Our Forest Garden, July 2018.

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But just as in all parts of our lives, change is relentless Growth, fruition, and decay follow each other with blinding speed.  And too much growth creates its own problems.  Plants can smother themselves and each other, allow fungus to get a foothold turning leaves yellow and buds black.  Vines can grow too thickly and tear down their supports.  Shrubs will grow up over our windows, and trees can grow too tall and thick and come down in heavy winds.

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April, 2018. The bed with the blue globe marks the spot where our beautiful double oak once stood, its root ball entombed below.  Before the trees fell, we  would have never had enough sun to grow Iris and other perennials in this part of the garden.

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Once we accept the inevitability of change, and work with it, we become much better gardeners.  We know when to plant, when to prune, when to repot, when to fertilize, when to weed, and when to spray.  We are able to understand how our action, or inaction, today will dictate how our garden develops in the next month or the next years.

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Destroyed in the storm, the tiny trunk of this Wax Myrtle is already sprouting new growth a month later.

Destroyed in the storm, the tiny trunk of this Wax Myrtle is already sprouting new growth a month later.

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When I was a child my family moved every few years.  My father’s work took him from one town to the next.  We left the rest of our family firmly situated in their homes and lives, but we were always leaving one community and trying to get a fresh start in another.   It was very hard making friends and then leaving them behind so often.  It was hard adjusting to new homes and new schools, only to move on again before the dust had time to settle.  My parents always focused on the many opportunities such a life opens up.

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When transplanting, always inspect the roots. Grown too long in a small pot, the roots begin to grow in circles and will strangle the plant.  Remove the outer layer of roots if the plant is root bound. This one is fine, so I simply loosened the roots with the tip of my knife.

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Looking back, I realize that my childhood was a process of “root pruning”.  As soon as I timidly began to grow some roots in a place, my life was uprooted and transplanted somewhere else.  Like a Bonsai, I had to get tough to grow and sustain life in a very small pot.  There is an elegance and sparseness to such a life.  One quickly understands that nothing stays the same for long, and learns to embrace change as the only constant.

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New growth always holds promse. Here, ferns revived by the rain try to re-sprout from their roots.

New growth always holds promise. Here, ferns revived by the rain try to re-sprout from their roots.

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But my parents were ultimately correct.  Every move brought new people and new opportunities into our lives.  We never became bored or boring, because we were always growing into our new situation.  We had a certain freedom to reinvent ourselves and to explore new ideas and ways of being that simply aren’t possible to those who don’t welcome change and never give themselves a fresh start somewhere new.

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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And so pruning is a good thing.  Whether we prune plants in our garden; or prune our lives through moves, job changes, divorce, or watching our children grow and move into lives of their own;  pruning activates growth.  Pruning allows new wood to grow and blossom, and ultimately renews us and keeps us strong.

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2018

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April 2014, beauty returns to our Forest Garden.

(Forest Garden)

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

7 responses to “Pruning

  1. Reblogged this on Forest Garden and commented:

    February and March offer the best window to prune many shrubs and trees, shaping their growth, renewing them, and correcting any diseased or damaged wood while the plant is bare.

    I wrote this essay, ‘Pruning’ about a month after beginning this ‘Forest Garden’ blog. It is deeply buried in the archives, and yet its message remains absolutely current. I’ve cleaned it up a bit with some new photos, but left the text exactly as written nearly six years ago.

    I hope you will enjoy this meditation on pruning, on a gardeners’ philosophy of life, and on the relentless flow of change which shapes us all, renews us, and keeps us strong.

  2. Pingback: Visiting Friends | Forest Garden

  3. Pingback: Learning to Garden in a Forest | Forest Garden

  4. You’re right, change is the only constant in existence and it has spiritual value when taken in stride – as much as one can.

    Nice post. You were lucky with the trees missing the house. Luck is earned …

  5. Forest So Green

    Oh yes, it is a big shock when you have to remove some trees. I enjoyed reading your post 🙂 Annie

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