Spring Pruning

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Budded

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If you garden, March is an acutely disappointing month.  If March feels like an illness to you, it is. That late winter gardener’s fever–entirely predictable.  The hope that spring is almost here when it is in fact many weeks away-a normal symptom of said illness.  Once March arrives, no matter what constitutes likely and reasonable, I am over the winter.  I have eyes, ears and a nose for spring.  Though I have written this in countless ways for the last month, this time I really mean it!  The thought that spring is near has been much on my mind- for weeks.  What the gardening heart hopes for bears no remote resemblance to reality-that conflict would be a good definition of a Michigan March.  Hope versus reality-game on.

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My yard is a trashed by the winter.The grass is the color of hay.  That hay has been pounded into the ground by the corgis, so the color is actually dirty hay.  How many gallons of paint do you suppose a paint manufacturer might sell if they names a color dirty hay?  Well, ok, gardeners might warm up to it.  But the idea of dirty hay is pretty unappetizing.  Just like March in Michigan.

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The isotoma around my fountain at home looks dead.  The leaves are brown and black, accented by a glaze of rot.  Who knows if or how much of it has survived this winter.  Some of the coldest days of the winter are courtesy of this March.  How it looks right now-horrifying.  The clematis are but brittle sticks, and the boxwood are burned.  My moss stuffed cow-known as Lady Miss Bunny, has dead weeds sticking out of her side.  Dead rotting leaves are sprinkled all over the yard.  Could my garden possibly look worse than it does right now?

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The European ginger?  The leaves are limp, and lay flat on the ground-exhausted.  I so understand this feeling.  The look of it-I try not to look.  Many of the leaves have those large black patches gardeners know as decomposition.  I do not dare clean them up yet-we have night forecasts in the 20′s for the next week.  Most of the snow was gone, meaning really cold night temperatures could hurt.

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My hopes for March are always unrealistic.  Last year’s March was warm-enticing.  Though it satisfied my need for an early spring, it made me uneasy.  April confirmed that unease.  Freezing temperatures over an extended period of April days was destructive to early spring flowering trees, maples, and birch.  No spring for us, last year.  The 2012 spring disaster- every gardener in my zone remembers.  The nights covering vulnerable plants to no avail. All of the hellebores blooming collapsed in pathetic heaps on the ground. Such shock-realizing that our spring would be erased by deadly low temperatures.  Gardeners far away wrote to me, their voices charged with grief and irritation very much like mine.  Gardeners in my zone and in many other regions have been waiting for a glorious spring for close to 2 years.

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March is anything but a spring month; March is in fact the last of the winter season.  We have has snow more days these first 2 weeks of March, than not.   A single oddball 62 degree day made me believe the winter was over-I truly believed that the crocus, eranthis and hellebores were but days away.  But one day does not a spring season make. The utter cold has returned; just this morning, four inches of fresh snow.  I m shoveling, not gardening.  March is a month marked by the tumultuous transition from one season to another.  Sometimes that transition is easy and sensible.  Other times that transition is so slow, boring, and treacherous,  one could weep.

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The trees and shrubs have no such angst.  They go dormant given the day length and temperatures.  They set buds for spring season, months ahead.  They prepare.  They have no expectation of mercy.  They wait.  The urge to emerge revolves around a complex set of conditions.  Natural relationships that culminate in the OK to grow.

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A bud is an undeveloped shoot.  A leaf or a flower shoot.  Once formed, that bud may lay dormant for months, waiting for the moment when conditions favor growth.  When woody plants form buds, the exterior of that bud is tough-encapsulating.  Breaking dormancy is a very vulnerable state-best not to do so, unless there is a reasonable expectation of success.  Nature provides mechanisms by which that tender stage we call growth is protected from its enemies, until the time is right.   Many plant buds are covered in scales.  These modified leaves protect the life brewing within that bud from cold, wind,and physical insult.

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Many buds are covered in a gummy substance that further protects them from untoward conditions.  These magnolia flower buds have a remarkably rigid hinged casing that is covered in soft downy hair.  This magnolia is always the first plant to bloom in my yard. The buds are swelling, meaning that spring will arrive. Everywhere in my zone the buds are beginning to swell.  They anticipate spring in a very different way than I do.  They intuit the natural shift of the season. They respond to that subtle change in conditions, in a slow and subtle way.  These buds may swell, but they won’t break dormancy until there is a more extended period of moderate weather.

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The buds can hold a very long time, if the weather does not take a more friendly turn. Most perennials have naked buds. What you see in this picture is the remains of my asparagus.  The spring shoots are still safely ensconced below ground. They have little defense against bitter cold. They stay dormant, buds and all, until they have the all clear. The leaf buds of the roses, encased in the same waxy substance as the stems.  They are ready, but holding their cards close.

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The cream colored knobs on this yew-the flowers that will hardly be noticed.  The flowering stage is remarkable, the day a gust of wind throws a cloud of yellow pollen into the air.  At the tip of each branch, an elongated bud known as a candle.  Named for its resemblance to a candle, this growth tip is comprised of the countless needles which will populate the new shoots.  These needles lay flat against the stem, until the spring weather encourages them to spread out and grow.  The buds do a better job of predicting the arrival of spring than my winter weary heart.

 

 

The 2013 Espaliers

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It is no secret that I am very fond of espaliered trees.  Espaliers?  These are trees or shrubs which are pruned to a 2-dimensional shape.  Though the practice dates back many centuries, a French monk, Fr. Legendre, published a book in 1684 entitled  “Palmette Legendre”.  He detailed his method for drastically pruning fruit trees so they could be grown against the monastery walls.  This made it possible to grow many more trees, and harvest more fruit, in a small space.  The French word espalier is derived from the Italian word “spalliera”, meaning “something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against”.  These fruit trees rested their shoulders against the wall.

unloading-the-espaliers.jpgFr. Legendre discovered that fruit trees that were subject to this kind of hard pruning, and enjoying the warmth generated by the wall,  produced better yields.  The growth generated in the third dimension would be cut back to the fruiting spurs. The first espaliers were pruned to encourage long horizontal arms.  It seems that horizontal branches bear more fruit than vertical ones. This horizontal shape is known as a cordon, and is quite similar to how grapes are pruned.

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Eventually, many different styles of pruning emerged.  Some styles are just as decorative as they are utilitarian.  The tree pictured above has been trained into a classic fan shape.  All of the primary arms radiate outward from the trunk in the shape of a fan. This shape is great for a wall that is both tall and wide.  Blank walls in the landscape are a perfect spot for an espalier.  The pattern of green, light and shadow that the tree creates provides interest in a spot that is otherwise empty.  Should I under plant an espalier, I like like a short growing plant.  Part of the beauty of an espalier is being able to see the entire shape, from top to bottom.

espaliered-trees.jpgEspaliers are traditionally created from fruit bearing trees.  Though apples prefer a sunny location to fruit well, a pear tree is fairly tolerant of a shady location.  I am partial to pears.  Their glossy leaves are beautiful, and they seem more resistant to fungal problems.  Many fruit trees require another tree for cross pollination.  If you want to grow an espalier for fruit, be sure you grow a pair, or pick a variety that is self pollinating.  All  fruiting trees are beautiful when they bloom in the spring.  An espalier fruit tree in full bloom is especially gorgeous, as the white flowers dramatically detail the geometry of the shape.

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These four espaliers are Kieffer pears, trained in the candelabra form.  It is easy to see here that an overall form has been determined for the large branches.  Once a horizontal branch reaches the width desired, the young branch is turned towards the sky, and tied to a form.  That branch will require support until it gets enough to stand on its own.  Pear wood hardens off quickly.  If you are training an espalier, be sure to make any change in direction when the branch is still very young.  Barely visible at the top of this picture is a horizontal fish line.  The branches are tied to this to keep them vertical, and keep them the desired distance from neighboring branches.  We have secured the branches in this manner for display only.  Once they are planted against a wall, galvanized steel eyes will need to be installed in the mortar.  The branches will be tied to those eyes using a flexible and expandable landscape tie.

espaliered-rose-of-sharon.jpgThough a fruiting tree is a traditional subject for an espalier, lots of trees and shrubs readily take to this kind of pruning.  Pictured above is a white rose of sharon, trained into a fan. The picture is not the best.  Imagine many branches emerging from the soil in a line., rather than a mass.  Any branch which emerged from the ground outside of the line-either to the front or back-was removed.  The fan is created with many branches, rather than just a select few.  This shape of this shrub reminds me of fan coral.  It will be a solid mass of green, in leaf-and a solid mass of white in flower.

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A Belgian fence is a series of espaliered trees that are planted equidistant from each other. Each interior tree has a single trunk which comes up up out of the ground about 18″.  Years ago, that trunk was pruned down to 18″.  A pair of emerging side shoots were trained at a specific and repeating angle.  The collection of trees produces multiple diamond shapes.  Ideally, each diamond is the same size as its neighbor.  Maintaining the diamond shapes requires faithful and regular pruning.  The larger and simpler the diamonds, the easier the care.  This group of trees are Calloway crab apples.  They have a beautiful cinnamon colored bark, and flower and fruit like all crab apples.

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The large espaliers in this picture are lindens-old lindens. The cordon espaliers in front of them-Bradford pears. Both species are ornamental, and tolerate hard pruning. These trees may also be allowed to fill in between the horizontal layers. This would result in a solid thin wall of green.  They could be grown against a wall, or as a freestanding green wall.  Any espalier which is grown as a fence will need lots of support and direction in the early years.  Big bamboo stakes are prefect for this.  The bamboo you see on the foreground trees was attached to keep all the branches in place during shipping.

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This espalier has been grown in a goblet shape. The change in direction from a horizontal to vertical is a gently curve, as opposed to the right angle of a candelabra style.  As the main arms are fairly well established, we only needed to secure the tops of the branches to keep the tree representing its intended shape.

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These fan espaliers are apples and pears of various varieties.  A whole orchard could be grown in a relatively small space.  Training espaliers is an art form, but a form that can be learned.  As slowly as trees grow, you would have time for your knowledge to grow.  A large caliper espalier is an investment, mainly due to the years it took to get it to size.  This particular grower does not sell any trees unless they are at least 7 years old.  Over the course of that 7 years, he waters and feeds, and keeps the yellow bellied sapsuckers from drilling holes in their trunks.  He has trees that have had a major arm die back-heartbreaking this.  But once an espalier is established, they are no more care than any other tree or shrub.  Some nurseries and garden centers carry 1-2 year old plants.  This makes it easy to give one a try.