The 2014 Espaliers

fan-pear-espalier-in-bloom.jpgAs long as I am on the topic of pruning woody plants, I would like to devote a little time to a discussion of espaliered trees.  An espalier is any tree which has been trained to grow in two dimensions. Espaliers can have great height, and great width, but with next to no depth.  They are pruned flat.  This training can take a long time.  They are great trees for very shallow places.

4-cordon-crabapple-espalier.jpgThe history of growing espaliers dates back centuries, to a certain French monk, Fr. Lergendre, who was entrusted with the important job of providing food for his monastery. In those days, providing food meant growing it. Some of his discoveries were made out of sheer need.  He wanted to grow lots of fruit trees, as he had lots of people to feed.  The trees planted closest to the monastery walls fruited more heavily and more reliably, as the flowers were protected from late frosts by the heat generated from the walls.  As his space was small, and his need great, he moved them closer and closer to the walls. And closer and closer together.  There were many varieties he wished to grow.  Eventually he cut the back branches off of the trees all together.  Amazingly, the trees he eventually trained to grow flat against the walls produced more fruit than trees cultivated in the open. His work over a lifetime was detailed in a book he wrote, “Palmette Legendre”, published in 1684.    The art of training fruit trees to grow against a wall in formally pruned shapes has persisted to this day.

candelabra-Golden-Delicious-apple-espalier.jpgHaving worked for Al Goldner in the 80′s, I inherited his love of espaliers.  He actually grew them on his farm in Howell.  Many a time I have gone to look at an old existing landscape with a mature espalier, and known it was his design.  We buy them from a number of different growers, in different shapes and sizes.

candelabra-style-redbud-espalier.jpgThis redbud was an experimental espalier subject for one grower.  It will have flowers on the main trunk this year. Almost any tree can be grown into an espalier, provided that the training and tying begins at an early age.  A framework of bamboo or wire must be in place, so each branch grows the desired length and in the desired location.  The process of making a branch turn from the horizontal to the vertical takes a lot of time, and must be started when the branch is young and flexible.

pear-espalier.jpgBranches on a fruiting pear tree harden off at a fairly early age.  The decisions as to which shape and direction to take has to be done early on.

pear-espaliered-arbors.jpgWe have a collection of 7 old fruiting pear arbors.  The eighth pair has already found a home.  They are outrageously beautiful.  We do construct a steel hoop armature for every arbor, so the vertical branches can be tied in place.  These espaliers have sufficient age and strength that they will not need that armature for long.  This is plant material that can make an entire garden.  Like every other plant, any gardener can grow a tree arbor, provided they have some time and patience.

espaliered-apple-trees.jpgWe also have a collection of 40 espalier apple trees of more modest size and dimension, and a small collection of espaliered grapes.  If you have an interest in growing, training and pruning, an espalier might be a perfect addition to your garden.  Interested further?  I have written several essays about espaliers.  If you type the word espalier into the search line of this blog, you’ll find them.

 

 

Pruning With A Purpose

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Pruning woody shrubs, when done properly, is good for the plants.  Cutting out dead or diseased branches helps to preserve the overall health of the plant. Branches that cross over one another may damage the bark of both branches.  Damage to the bark of a woody shrub is an invitation to insects and disease.  Thinning out a woody shrub can help to maintain it at a desired size for many years.  That thinning allows light and air to penetrate the interior spaces, keeping the interior of the shrub well foliated.  In the hydrangea hedge above, the upper branches were kept long, a practice which eventually shaded the lower branches.  The lower branches have leaves that are smaller, and fewer flowers. Once we started pruning these hydrangeas, we shortened the top branches considerably and unequally, and pruned the lower branches with the idea of encouraging lateral growth.  Ideally, a hydrangea should be wider at the bottom than the top.

limelights 2013 (7)As an experiment, I did not prune my limelights at home at all last spring, but for removing the spent flower heads. My reason?  I have a yew hedge in front of them.  I wanted my hydangeas to grow tall, and have lots of blooms in the top third of the plant. On the inside of this hedge is a boxwood hedge, planted fairly close to the hydrangeas.  For the health of the boxwood, I did not want a lot of foliage shading them.  For hydrangeas blooming from top to bottom, the boxwood would have needed to be planted much further away.  I did not have the luxury of that kind of space. This is what I mean by pruning with a purpose.  Good pruning encourages the plant to grow in a way and direction that works with the natural habit of the plant-and the intended design.
limelight hedge 2
This limelight hedge was planted with the specific intent of providing dense screening from top to bottom.  The branches at the bottom are slightly longer and wider than the branches at the top.  Hydrangeas, like most other deciduous shrub, cannot be pruned with a hedge trimmer.  Cutting every branch at exactly the same height produces a proliferation of growth all at the same level.  A single cut may produce 3 or 4 breaks, or new buds.  This denies light and air to the branches below.  Deciduous shrubs pruned for years in this in this manner have a thin green outer layer, and a dead twiggy interior.

pruned-limelight-hydrangeas.jpgThink shag hair cut.  Shorter on the top, longer on the sides, with each cut an alternate length and direction. Each branch has to be pruned individually, one at a time-each at its own level.  Every branch needs a home of its own, uncrowded by the leaves of a neighboring branch.  Clusters of leaves that pester one another and compete for light eventually leads to overall decline.  Lots of deciduous shrubs grow large.  A big shrub planted in a tight space that always needs downsizing will never look or be happy and healthy.  If you don’t have room for a limelight hydrangea, which will mature at 6-8 feet tall, plant Little Limes.  They can comfortably be kept at 4 t0 5 feet tall and wide.

pruned-limelight-hydrangeas.jpg
There are a few plants that are tolerant of shearing. Boxwood and yews are tolerant. Lindens have been pleached and formally grown into overhead hedges for centuries.  A hydrangea is not a member of this group.  They have a loose and shaggy natural shape.  Pruning them needs to work with this natural  habit.  Landscapes where every deciduous shrub is pruned into ball, mushroom or cube shapes is a look that is heavy handed, and not good for the plants. Proper pruning takes a lot of time, but that time is well spent.

pruned-limelights.jpgThe effect of just one year not pruning my limelight hydrangeas is obvious.  The shrubs have developed long bare legs  Pruned down to 36″ tall will encourage lateral buds to break, and some branching at the bottom.  From a distance, the boxwood disguises this legginess. In fact, I prune my hydrangeas differently every year.  I like trying out different approaches and observing the results.  Shrubs are quite tolerant of gardeners.

hydrangea-branching.jpgIf you do have a shrub that is had become overgrown, or is suffering from long standing poor pruning, it is possible to renovate.  An overgrown lilac might benefit from having a couple of old thick branches cut to the ground.  This will encourage growth from the base.  A privet that has been cut into a ball shape for too many years might be a good candidate for the swiss cheese treatment.  Cut holes in the exterior thicket of branches so light can penetrate.  The light is coming from overhead, so treating the top surface of the shrub is the most effective way.

hydrangea-budding.jpgI would say my hydrangeas have been cut hard this year.  I see I have buds breaking here well below the cut.  The trick is to cut close enough to a bud so no time and energy is wasted on a stub that will eventually die back.  Cut too close to a bud, and you may damage it.  For this reason, I may prune my hydrangeas again in a month of so.  To encourage more branching.  Very hard pruning can result in just a few stems, with overly large flowers that droop over.  A sturdily branched hydrangea properly pruned will be a joy come bloom time.

 

 

The Bad News

DSC_9332Every warmer day, there are new signs of the damage sustained in the landscape from our once in better than a lifetime winter.  The news is discouraging.  Any gardener who has zone 5 or 6 plants in their landscape is feeling the side effects of a zone 3 or 4 winter. I do not know the cultivar of pine in this neighborhood garden, but I am quite sure these trees are bone dead.  I was a long ways away, but a close inspection was unnecessary.  That saturated orange brown color on every needle but for the very bottom branches-very bad news.

DSC_9403Our past winter was a once in 130 year event.  Record cold. Record snow. The ice on the Great Lakes-3 feet thick.  The ice on the Great Lakes are still 40% covered with ice.  Some say it will be well into June before all that ice melts.  Chilly is the prediction for our immediate future.   This specialty and marginally hardy spruce grew and prospered in this client’s garden, for going on thirty years.  This past winter proved too be too cold.  Just too cold.  No one could have foreseen a winter like this, nor could this spruce have been protected.  Unless you are older than 130 years, this is this first time you have seen a winter this fierce.

bamboo.jpgLike other stands of mature bamboo I have seen this spring, the culms and leaves are dead.  It is impossible to predict yet if the roots survived.  Time will tell.  We have had a very long period of mild winters.  That length of time was long enough to tempt gardeners to push the limits.  My magnolia stellata bloomed today.  The flowers are small, and look like wet kleenex.  Not that I am complaining.  I am shocked it is blooming at all.  Planting magnolias in a northern zone is a leap of faith.  A story about hope. Our winter was very rough, and every gardener in my zone is being educated daily about how that winter is intruding on our spring.

alberta-spruce.jpgI have not seen a single Alberta spruce untouched by the winter.  Every neighborhood I have visited has alberta spruce burned on the south side.  Some very exposed locations show burn all around.  Fierce burn.

winter-burn.jpgMany landscapes show damage which is hard to understand.  Some plants are untouched.  Others are burned all over.  Others are burned in specific spots.  Some have been killed outright.  Do I have a simple and swift explanation-not really.  Some species of plants that are marginally hardy in our area-many of these are in the killed outright list. Do I have zone 5 and 6 plants in my landscape-yes.  A once in 130 year winter cycle would not prevent any gardener from testing the limits.  The fact is, my 20 year old  garden is but a short intermission in the bigger scheme of things.  This spring is making me realize that nature bats both first and last.  There is no negotiating once a winter tests the limits of cold hardiness..  Too cold is simply too cold.  No zone 6 specialty conifer could not have fared well this past winter.  I have no easy and simple answers.

winter-damage-on-boxwood.jpgI love boxwood as much as the next gardener.  Every Green Velvet boxwood in my garden at home is unscathed by this past winter.  They are green and good to go.  This boxwood hedge in a neighborhood garden south of me did not fare so well.  The cause of the damage?  Salt spray generated by cars driving by at a brisk speed is a toxic bath that can damage boxwood.  Extremely low temperatures can test boxwood cultivars intended for warmer zones.  Exposed plantings of boxwood were bleached by sun reflected off of deep snow.  A boxwood that went into the winter dry can be severely damaged by cold winter winds. Evergreens need to be well watered in the fall.  They cannot absorb water from the roots once the ground freezes.  Water evaporates quickly from evergreen leaves given cold temperatures, wind and sun.  The damage on this hedge is hard to pinpoint. How that damage should be handled-it is too early to tell.

winter-burn-on-boxwood.jpgBoxwood is a broad leaved evergreen.  It needs to be well watered and juicy before winter.  Once the soil freezes, no boxwood can access the water it needs to keep the leaves juicy and green.  The water available at the root is turned off.  Strong winter winds makes the water in the leaves evaporate at an alarming rate.  An evergreen cannot replace the water it looses by evaporation over the winter.  What that leaf has to sustain it in November will have to do for the rest of the winter.  An evaporation rate that exceeds the store of moisture means leaves will dry out and die.

damaged-boxwood.jpgThe boxwood leaves on the interior of the shrub, protected from salt winter wind and sun scald may survive the toughest winter.  The damage I see on the boxwood at the shop makes me want to rush out there with my pruners. Notwithstanding my instinct to remove any sign of damage, I will wait.  Viable branches that have lost their leaves will releaf, given some time. Boxwood damaged by repeated soaking in road salt may not recover. Marginally hardy varieties of boxwood may be dead from the cold.  Hicks yews are not so wonderfully hardy.  Yews pruned after August show striking signs of damage.   I am inclined to wait and see how all of my plants will respond.  Plants have a will to live.  I would advise giving them the room they need to recover.

boxwood-damage.jpgA sick and challenged plant needs time to sort out the insult and injury on their own.  This is my opinion.  This spring following a once in a century winter-what do I know what will be?  I do know this section of boxwood has been struggling with fungus for 4 years.  An extraordinarily bad winter may have done them in.

winter-kill.jpgI have a plan to grieve privately about the damage to my beloved boxwood hedge, and wait.  I know I need to wait for the plants to respond.  Once they respond to warmer weather, I will know what to do.  It is not clear yet what is lost, and what is burned, and needs pruning.  Having never experienced a winter like this before, the last thing I want to do is interfere with the natural order of things.  If you are as passionate a gardener as I am, the waiting will be horticultural hell.  But all of us would go to hell and back for a garden, wouldn’t we?

Snow Day And Night

parrotia-in-January.jpgThe  pictures recovered from my iphone of the rose garden in June a few days ago were indeed a pleasant interlude.  However, the winter season is all over my garden.  Buck says we have 10-12 inches already on the ground, and our heaviest snowfall is yet to come.  Overnight, another 6 inches.  I have not one problem in the world with that.  Due to arrive shortly-zero and below temperatures.  I told Buck it was at least 20 years ago that I remember temperatures this cold.  Given an extremely low air temperature, I am glad that all of my plants have roots buried in the ground.  With the temperature set to drop to zero, I am further comforted by the insulation provided by all of this snow.

parrotia-in-winter.jpgWinter hardiness is an exact science, provided you factor in each and every one of the mitigating circumstances. OK, it is an inexact science. Plants reputedly hardy in my zone that are planted in poorly draining clay soil die out regularly.  Perennials and shrubs planted so late in the season that there is no time for any rooting to take place can be heaved out of the ground in a freeze/thaw/freeze period.  Marginally hardy plants placed in protected locations, and mulched for the winter stand a better chance of survival.

buried-stairs.jpgPlants have an extraordinary will to live.  They will suffer my careless planting and indifferent siting, my over watering, my thoughtless pruning and wrong headed culture without so much as a peep.  But once the insults reach a critical mass, a plant will die.  My garden starting slowing down this past August, and we have had fairly cold and snowy weather since November.  The garden couldn’t be more ready for the cold. I doubt that anything in my garden will be damaged by the brief but extreme cold to come. Dormant is dormant. The insulation that will result from all of this snow is a bonus.

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Heavy snow does not keep any plant warmer.  The snow is an insulator.  It protects against any response to a rapid change in conditions.  With mulching, or insulation from snow, a plant that is frozen will most likely stay frozen until the time is right to grow.  Our temperature today was 29 degrees.  It has dropped precipitously to 9 degrees.  It is forecast to drop again to zero on Tuesday.  Once a plant has gone dormant, it is the hope that the dormancy will be maintained.  Up and down, freeze and thaw-big changes are not good changes.  If I have a mind to mulch a tender perennial for the winter, I do not apply the mulch until the ground is frozen.  The mulch will help frozen ground stay that way.

snow-day.jpgI dress in lots of layers in weather like this.  A turtle neck, a fleece jacket, a down vest and a down coat keeps me comfortable outside in cold weather.  Warm air is trapped by all of the layers.  My sheepskin winter boots, warmed by the radiator, will stay warm for several hours outdoors-the sheepskin holds the heat.  I am not looking for my winter gear to warm me up.  I only ask that it help me maintain a comfortable temperature outdoors.

heavy-snow.jpgI have been in and out all day today with my camera.  A snowfall of this magnitude is not an every day garden event.  Piling on the clothes prior to a garden visit is an event the corgis notice.  They know something is about to happen.  I have had them outside on and off all day today.  Though they are not equipped to handle really deep snow, they have been game.  Milo plows, and Howard follows in his tracks.

yew-topiary.jpgAt 7pm it was snowing even harder.  The snow had gotten more powdery, and the wind was blowing it around.

winter-storm.jpgThe light strings in the pots were unfazed by all the snow.  All else was a deep blue gray.

winter-pots.jpg)My winter pots-pretty fazed.  This is a moment when I am glad that we take such trouble to insure that the winter arrangements are secure.  The centerpieces go deep into the soil in the pots.  As that soil is frozen solid, it would take a lot to dislodge them.  The eucalyptus is preserved, and will bend before it breaks.

Buck.jpgBuck is not a whatever the weather guy, but even he was intrigued.

winter-pot.jpgsnow clogged winter pot

snow-bound.jpgburied boxwood

Milo.jpgMilo, unfazed.