The Shape of Things

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You may find winter’s landscape a bit stark.  Some might observe we are down to the ‘bones’ of the garden: trunks, branches, hardscape and often frozen ground.

Much of that is colored dull brown or grey, brightened here and there by our evergreens, holly berries, Nandina clusters, and rosy swelling buds.

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There’s little left that looks or feels soft.  The ground may still be littered with crumbling leaves blowing about.

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Skeletons of last May’s Hydrangeas linger here and there; an ethereal bit of Solidago shivers in the wind.  Sharp edges everywhere: sticks, thorns, spines on holly leaves and brittle branches.

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This is a sober and thoughtful turn of the seasons.  I find myself studying a crape myrtle tree as I unload groceries from the car.  Which branches need pruning next month?

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My eye wanders over to the hedge of rose of Sharon shrubs leaning at an unlikely angle towards the butterfly garden.  They’ve grown too tall and top heavy for their spot.  I’m making a mental list of things to do while the garden is sleeping.

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With the garden stripped bare and most of it slumbering, I can see the shape of things.  I can see things I like, and things that must be fixed.  I can wade into beds once filled with Canna and Hedychium, grasses and flowering stems.  Now I see the roots exposed on this leaning Camellia, and the brazen honeysuckle vines climbing up through the center of a venerable old Azalea shrub.

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I can see branches that may be damaged, diseased, already dead, or dangerous in some way.  With the leaves gone, I can finally see problems that may have been hidden before.

This is the time to fix it all.  This is the time to prune woodies, while they are dormant.  This is a good time to find and eliminate invasive vines or shrubs.  This is the time to remake the borders of the beds, study the layout, figure out where new shrubs might go and which old ones need to go.

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I learned an interesting fact this week:  Most home landscapes are only expected to grow for 20-25 years before the main shrubs must be replaced.  I’m so used to hearing about planned obsolescence in everything from cars to toasters, that the shock at hearing that statistic is mild.

You see, I happen to know that some of the Azaleas growing along our foundation were planted before 1970.  We won’t do the math there, OK? 

But a case can be made for shrubs and trees having a life span, just as a pet or any other living thing grows, ages, and eventually will die.  I look around and see a lot of things that have maybe grown too big, or grown here too long.

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Some older shrubs may be ‘fixed’ with rejuvenation pruning.  By cutting out older branches, new ones may grow.   We do this with roses, with Hydrangeas and with some holly shrubs.  I cut the beautyberry and butterfly bush back to just a couple of feet each spring, knowing it will reward me with fresh new branches.  When flowers grow from new wood, this will work.

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Other shrubs, that set their flowers in the autumn, won’t bloom if you cut their buds away by pruning now.  Azaleas, Hydrangea, Forsythia and Camellia have their buds set and ready to open once the weather warms.  After bloom, we can cut out the older, taller canes from those that send up new shoots each year.  We can head back branches grown too long, shape, direct, and guide future growth.

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This is the time to walk around with a notepad and a critical eye, making decisions about what plants may stay, which need a bit of pruning, and which must go before another spring distracts us.

I’ve been reading about ‘tidying up’ in our homes, according to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method.  I’m not yet piling all my clothes or books in the floor to sort them, but the idea of making peaceful living spaces by identifying what gives us joy- and what does not- has value.

I wonder if she has a similar method for tidying up one’s garden?

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I wonder if we wander around our own yard in January noticing what ‘brings us joy’, and what leaves us feeling anxious or annoyed, if we might be inspired to make some changes?

How often do you begin a new project to solve an old problem?  How often do you wait for a calamity to edit the structure of your garden?

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January is a good time to embrace change.  We have a fresh start by the calendar and by the wheel of the natural year, too.

Now that the garden has undressed itself and settled in for a good long rest, we can take a breath and ‘see’ what is and isn’t there.

We can see the shape of things, and dream it into any shape we choose for the many seasons yet to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden

The Butterfly Garden at The Williamsburg Botanical Garden is beautiful, if still dormant, in early February.

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden is a great destination for picking up ideas and observing many different sorts of plants growing here in James City County, Virginia.

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Whether you go for a quiet walk, or to participate in a class, there is always more to learn, experience and enjoy.

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The garden is a true community effort.  It brings together volunteers from many different organizations, including the Williamsburg Master Gardeners Association.

The garden is subdivided into  specialty gardens planned and maintained by different groups, and serving different purposes.  In addition to the butterfly garden, there are areas devoted to heirloom plants, native plants, wetland and woodland plants, perennials and flowering shrubs, a fernery, and an area of raised beds for therapeutic gardening.

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The Pollinator Palace

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Best practices are modeled, and new gardeners are both trained and inspired in this special space.  Even though the Williamsburg Botanical Garden is fenced to exclude deer; songbirds, pollinators and other small wildlife are welcomed and fed.

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The first stirrings of spring were evident today under bright skies.  It was only a few degrees above freezing when some gardening friends and I ventured out, tools in hand, for a pruning workshop.

Despite numb fingers and toes, we discussed proper pruning for several species of flowering woody shrubs.  Experts demonstrated the proper use of a variety of nifty pruning tools, too.

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A few of the earliest shrubs, like Spirea, showed tiny bits of green. Its buds are just tentatively opening this week.  But most of the herbs, perennials, and deciduous woodies were still slumbering through their last few weeks of dormancy.

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Daffodils have just begun to emerge, their bright blooms now only days away.

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Today served as a call to action to get out and get after the woodies in our own Forest Garden, before the season gets ahead of me this year.  I was a bit slack last year on the pruning. This year, there is a great deal of cutting and thinning and just plain lopping back waiting for us.  But it won’t wait for long; warmer, longer days will coax those buds to open all too soon.

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It is too early in the season to prune wood from early spring bloomers like Spirea and Viburnum.  However, one may always prune out wood that is Dead, Diseased, Deformed, or Damaged.

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Some gardeners grow a bit confused about what pruning to do, and when.  In general, February is a great month for pruning roses, crape myrtle, butterfly bush, rose of Sharon, and other trees and shrubs which won’t bloom before June.  If a shrub blooms on new growth only, it is safe to prune it back now.

If your shrub blooms on old wood from last year’s growth, and already has its flower buds ready to go now, then “wait to prune until after bloom.”  

All of our favorite spring shrubs like Rhododendrons, Camellias, Forsythias, and Spireas have flower buds set and ready to open on schedule, over the next several weeks.   Any pruning done now will reduce our spring blooms.

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There are great Botanical gardens all over the country, and we are very fortunate to have such a nice one here in Williamsburg.  One can’t help but feel either inspired or overwhelmed after an hour’s walk among such a beautiful collection of plants.  This is a great destination for a walking tour, even on a frosty February morning.

Once I had a cup of coffee and could feel my fingertips again, I was ready to head over to Lowes.   I wanted to have a look at some of the new nifty gadgets for pruning that I’d seen demonstrated today, while my enthusiasm was still warm.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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For The Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Tour Guide

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Winter Gardening

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

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Yes, it’s January, but there is still plenty to do in the garden.  When we get a fairly nice day, like today, you might feel the itch to get outside and get gardening again.  Even when the weather isn’t fine, there are still preps for the season ahead that can be done indoors, while the pace remains decidedly unhurried.

The most important winter gardening work can be accomplished from an armchair:  planning ahead.  Every year we tweak and revise; opening new ground, moving plants, refining the design.  This is a good time of year to photograph every part of the garden with an eye to its bones.  Study those photos for inspiration and instruction.  Look with fresh eyes to see new possibilities in your familiar turf.

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I also spend quite a bit of time studying plant catalogs as they come in.  I read about newly introduced cultivars of familiar plants.   I consider what perennials or shrubs I might want to add, and  plan designs for our  pots and baskets.

I try to keep notes and drawings from these winter musings.  Ideally, a binder proves helpful over time to track the evolution of one’s garden.  Include photos, receipts, tags, a site plan and notes of what is planted, and when.

January through early March prove the best months for pruning woody plants here in Williamsburg.  There is less shock when a tree is dormant, and spring growth, when it breaks, will prove more vigorous.

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Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

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Some shrubs, like Beautyberry, Callipcarpa,  respond well to very hard pruning.  Cut these back by 30% or more and they will reward you with abundant growth and heavy fruiting the following year.    I make the rounds of our Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus; Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia; Buddleia, roses, fruit trees and small ornamental trees like Japanese Maples in winter when it is easiest to see their structure.  All of these bloom on new wood.

Remove crossed or crowded branches.  Thin and direct growth.  Remove suckers growing straight up from a mostly horizontal branch, and cut back long branches to encourage bushier growth.  Thinning, to allow sunlight and air to circulate through the plant both controls diseases before they can take hold, but also produces a stronger plant.

Wait to prune shrubs like Hydrangea and Lilac, which bloom on old wood, until after they bloom each summer.  If you remove old Hydrangea blossoms before spring, carefully cut above the first dormant bud.

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Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring's growth.

Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring’s growth.  Any serious pruning can remove next season’s flowers.

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Remove any perennial stems still standing in the garden before new growth begins in early spring.  Emerging growth, especially spring  bulbs, looks neater after last year’s perennial remains have been cut and composted.

Some of us leave our Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Lantana and other late flowering seed heads to feed the birds over winter.  These will be mostly picked clean by early February and their time has passed.  Remove old leaves from Hellebores as new ones emerge to rejuvenate the plant.

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January 15, 2015 ice garden 115

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Building the soil can be done year round.  Adding organic matter, especially when working with heavy clay, brings the soil, and the garden, to life.   Whether you keep a compost pile, add mulch,  or simply sheet compost fallen and shredded leaves; do something each season to improve the soil in some part of the garden.  We save our coffee grounds and spread them on beds or around shrubs every few weeks.   Feeding the soil pays dividends much longer than does spreading any chemical fertilizer.

If you are starting a new planting area, consider building a raised bed with cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, or even fallen wood as a base.  “Sheet compost” the area over the winter months by adding coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, shredded leaves, and fruit and vegetable trimmings as they come available.  Keep adding layers of materials, topping the bed with straw or even bagged compost or topsoil from the garden center.  There are many, many ways to do this.

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March 31, 2015 shamrock 015

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Earthworms, drawn to the organic matter on the soil, begin to work their way through the pile, speeding the process and enriching the ground with their castings.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly crumbled into humus before you plant in spring.  If necessary, pile a few inches of bagged soil on top of your pile and plant directly into this finished soil, confident that the composting layers will break down in the weeks ahead.

This is a better way to begin a new bed than tilling or digging because it leaves the organisms already living in the soil intact.  The roots of your newly planted garden will stretch and grow, loosening the soil as they expand.  Earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures will also loosen its structure over time.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of broken limbs will rot into good compost over time.  We built this raised Hugelkulture bed in July of 2013, and it has been productive ever since.

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Winter is also a good time for building new garden structures.  Whether you are adding walls, steps, raised beds, pergolas, paths or a patio, consider beginning in late winter before the trees leaf out.  You can see the structure of things better, and your construction mess won’t detract from the beauty of your spring or summer garden.

Finally, begin planting for the coming season.  Although autumn is the best time for planting new trees and perennials in our area so they can establish during the cool and wet winter months; we find our best selection at local garden centers in the spring.  The selection of shrubs, fruiting vines, annuals, perennials trees and summer bulbs at local garden centers can feel dizzying by late March.  Ride the crest of this wave, seeking out small perennial starts and bare root nursery stock in late February or March.

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Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by may.

Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by May.

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Many garden centers will offer popular perennials in 2″-3″ pots at very low prices in early spring.  These will establish and grow to full sized plants by summer.  Planting early on will give your new plants a chance to establish and expand their root system before summer’s heat and drought.

If you’ve ordered bulbs, tubers, or bare root stock from catalogs, you can plant these up in nursery pots and keep them in a garage or basement for a few weeks until it is warm enough to set them out.   For example, many tropical tubers,  ordered in early spring, can be gotten at much lower prices than you’ll find for the leafed out plants in early summer.  Order Caladiums, Colocasia, Canna, Alocasia, Dahlias and many other beautiful plants early for the best selection of cultivars.  You can easily pot these up yourself in soil and have them ready to plant out when it warms enough for them in May.

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Caladium

Caladium

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Seedling trees from mail order nurseries may also be potted up and allowed to grow in a protected area of your garden for the summer, and then planted into their permanent spot in the garden next autumn.

As our summers grow hotter each year, I’ve come to appreciate the winter months even more.   A lot can be accomplished in relative comfort, without the distraction of biting insects or broiling sun, on warmish winter days.  It feels good to get out of doors and work in the garden.

Whether you are cleaning up, building up, planting up, or pruning; enjoy the time you spend preparing for spring’s beauty to unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

Winter Pruning

december 15 2013 Santas 008

When winter days turn warmish and dry in the afternoon, many of us like to get outside and do some small thing in the garden.

This is the perfect time to begin pruning hardwood trees and shrubs to shape them up for the coming season.  Why prune at all?

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

– Improve the plant’s shape and general appearance

-Control the plant’s size

-Improve the plant’s health

-Increase the plant’s vigor and bloom in the coming season

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm.  Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm. Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.  Much of the new, twiggy growth needs to go so energy is channeled into growing a new structure for this tree.

Many small trees, like Crepe Myrtle and Rose of Sharon, produce lots of chaotic, twiggy growth during the summer season.  With the leaves gone, we can take a moment to examine each one and determine what to leave and what to prune.

Before pruning any flowering shrub, please make sure you know whether it blooms on old wood left from the previous season, or on new wood.  Shrubs like Forsythia, Azalea, Hydrangea, and Lilacs set buds for the coming spring blooms during the previous autumn.  Any late winter pruning removes the branches set to bloom in the coming spring.  A hard pruning will sacrifice that season’s bloom.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

An unpruned shrub is a confusing mass of little twigs and larger branches.  Before making the first cut, take a few moments to study the plant.  Look for its structure; the  main skeleton which gives it shape and form.  If you are new to pruning, take photos of the plant and spend some time studying them on your computer before making any pruning cuts.  As you examine the plant you’ll begin to see what should be left behind to support the new season’s growth.

Here are the general things to consider before beginning to prune any woody plant:

Size:  Is this plant at its mature size?  If a plant is still growing into itself, you want to help it develop a strong structural skeleton of branches.  Consider whether you want one main trunk with side  branches, a main trunk which forks and bushes out into several main branches as it gets taller, or whether you want a clump of main stems which branch out into a large canopy of branches.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood.  These English shrub roses don't require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood. These English shrub roses don’t require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Any time you cut the tip off of a branch, you will activate the buds lower on the branch so they grow into new lateral branches.  If you cut the tip off of a main vertical stem, two, three, or more new man stems will grow from the buds below that cut in the coming year.  A “fork” will develop, multiplying your one main stem into several.  The canopy will grow broader.

Crepe Myrtle will "sucker" with new vertical growth around the main stem.  Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk.  Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

Crepe Myrtle will “sucker” with new vertical growth around the main stem. Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk. Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

If you want to keep a clumping shrub, like Crepe Myrtle, to a single trunk; remove the new smaller vertical growth coming from the base.  If you want a ‘ clump”, remove all but the strongest few vertical stems.

If grazing deer attack your garden, as they do mine, remember to “limb up” trees as they grow so the lowest limbs are too high for the deer to reach.
This is especially important if you have any fruit trees, so tasty leaves and fruits are out of reach.  If you don’t do it, deer are attracted to graze in your garden and will do the pruning for you…

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March.  These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March. These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Density:  Most shrubs and small trees need light to penetrate through the canopy to the interior of the shrub.  Keeping the branch structure somewhat open will increase flowering and improve the plant’s health.  Air circulation allows the plant to dry faster after a rain, reducing fungal disease.  An open structure allows strong winds to pass right through, limiting damage in storms.

Remove branches growing towards the plant’s interior.  Keep all lateral branches growing outward towards the periphery.

Where branches cross, select one to keep and one to remove.  Don’t leave branches touching one another, or crossing in the interior of the shrub.

January 1 2014 Parkway 005

Very old, and damaged trees and shrubs might need heavy pruning. All damage and dead wood should be removed, then the remaining branches thinned. In extreme cases rejuvenate by cutting the tree down to a stump. New growth will come from the stump in most cases.

Where many tiny twiggy branches have grown, especially on a vertical stem, remove all but a few strong ones placed where you want new branches.  If the shrub is small, and these twiggy branches are close to the ground, you can safely remove them all.  Remove up to a third of the wood on most small trees and shrubs.

If a shrub must be pruned to keep it smaller than its natural size to fit its spot in the garden, keep in mind that every cut stimulates new growth.   Cut the main vertical stems shorter than you want the plant to be by mid-summer, since the pruning cut will stimulate new vertical growth.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning.  Its buds are set in autumn and should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom.  Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning. Its buds are set in autumn and so it should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom. Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

It is better to remove a branch all the way back to a main stem than it is to “head it back” part way, unless you intend to stimulate new lateral branches.  If you prune off the tip, all of the buds below the tip are activated to give new branches.

Appearance:  Remove any branch or stem which is obviously dead.  Cut back any broken or damaged branches to an inch or so below the damage.  Remove or head back any branch which ruins the silhouette of the plant, or conflicts with the general lines and shape you have established.

“Dead head” seed heads left from last year’s flowers.  Remember that when you cut back a branch, you stimulate growth of new wood, and therefore new spots where flowers will emerge.

Butterfly bush, Buddhleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub's size and get abundant bloom.  This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub’s size and get abundant bloom. This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

A fine point:  Examine a branch before making the pruning cut.  Notice the tiny buds along the branch.  Choose the bud you want to stimulate to grow and make the pruning cut just above it.

January 9 pruning 007

Notice three new stems are left in addition to the original trunk of this Crepe Myrtle tree, cut off when the tree was crushed in June. I could remove all of these, but left them to form a clump to eventually hide the damage. Notice how little wood is left after pruning. All of the plant’s energy will pour into these branches in spring, and the tree will grow by several feet in the coming season.

Notice the buds are positioned all around the circumference of the branch.  Some point inwards, others outwards.  Choose a bud growing in the direction you wish the dominant new branch to grow, and cut just above this bud.  Make a diagonal, angled cut just a millimeter or so above the chosen bud.

Your newly pruned plant will look very clean and open when you are finished.  Remember this is just the plant’s skeleton.  Spring will clothe these branches not only in leaves, but also in new wood.  The shrub will fill out very quickly through spring and early summer.  Vigorous new growth is a hormonal response to pruning.  A pruned plant will actually grow larger and more vigorous in the following season.

Exceptions to the rules:

Some shrubs, such as Butterfly Bush, want to be cut back nearly to the ground.  Use heavy pruners or a small saw to cut the entire plant back to only a foot or two tall.  This is called “coppicing,” and this form of pruning is used to rejuvenate many species of shrub and tree.  New growth from the remaining trunk will be fresh and vigorous.  Butterfly Bush often grows too large for its space, and flower production declines when it is left unpruned or is pruned too lightly.  Do this in late winter, but after the worst of the freezing weather is over.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn.  Winter pruning removes the spring flowers.  If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn. Winter pruning removes the spring flowers. If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Roses are often coppiced.  Tea roses respond well to hard winter pruning, giving more blossoms on the newly grown wood.  Climbing roses and
English shrub roses shouldn’t be pruned so hard.  Shaping, removing dead or damaged wood and crossed branches are all that is required.  An old, thick rose may be rejuvenated by pruning up to a third of the older stems back to just above the bud union.  Younger plants don’t require such drastic treatment.

Spring blooming shrubs, like Forsythia, should be pruned in late spring, after they bloom.  If you do tidy up a Forsythia with light pruning in late winter, bring the pruned branches inside in a vase of water and enjoy them indoors as cut flowers.  I’ve had these forced branches eventually form roots, and have planted them outside where they grew into new shrubs.  All woody spring blooming shrubs can be forced to bloom early indoors in this way.  If you have fruit trees to prune, you might want to bring some of the branches indoors, in a vase of water, to enjoy their early blossoms.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Tools:  There are many brands and styles of hand pruners on the market.  Choose pruners which feel comfortable in your hand, have a sharp blade, and are sturdy enough to trim the shrubs you need to prune.

Keep the pruners cleaned by disinfecting the blade from time to time, and keep them sharp.  Ragged or torn cuts allow disease to enter a stem.  Make sure your pruners make clean, sharp cuts.  Use loppers or a pruning saw for larger branches.

Gather your cut branches on a tarp on in a large bag and remove them from the garden.  There are many traditional uses for larger branches.  Some may be used to build trellises, small fences, stakes, or may be used in building a raised bed.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all.  Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month.  These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all. Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month. These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Use or dispose of all your trimmings.  Just leaving them lying about on the ground encourages disease and insects.

Pruning can be done a little at a time over the next two months in Zone 7b.  Further north, it pays to wait until February or March so plants aren’t stimulated to grow too soon.  Further south, pruning is an ongoing task in the garden.  Winter allows us to see the bones of our gardens, and the structure of our plants.  It is a good time to shape, refine, and lay the ground work for the garden we will enjoy this coming spring.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife.  However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife. However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

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