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Winter Pruning

The first thing that everyone should know about pruning is that much like a bad haircut a botched pruning job will grow out eventually.  It’s unlikely that a person will kill a plant with poor pruning.  It may look really bad for a while, but it won’t die.

The chances of getting the job done right are improved if you use good, sharp tools, make a clean cut and consider the growth habit of the plant. And you can’t go wrong by just removing dead wood, crisscrossing branches and by limiting the removal to 1/3 of the plant’s size.

Why Prune?

The most obvious reasons to prune are to reduce the size of a plant, maintain a plant’s shape or improve its appearance.  Pruning to remove dead and diseased wood or thin out the center branches will also help keep a plant healthy.  For instances, shrub roses or hydrangeas that have grown too dense benefit from the removal of interior branches to open up air circulation; good air circulation helps keep diseases in check.

Why Prune in Late Winter

P. Allen Smith Shearing an Evergreen HedgePruning in late winter when many shrubs and trees are dormant invigorates the plants for abundant growth in spring; the wounds are exposed for a limited amount of time before the growing cycle begins; and finally, it’s just easier to see what needs to be pruned after the leaves have dropped.

When is Late Winter?

In my mid-South (zone 7) garden late winter is February.  The garden is still dormant but the spring thaw will begin within a month to 6 weeks.  The job should be handled before new spring growth begins, but after the threat of severe cold has passed.

What to Prune in Late Winter

Here is a short list of plants that appreciate a good trim in late winter.

Summer Flowering Trees – Ornamental trees that bloom in summer such as Crape Myrtles, Vitex, Smoke Tree, Rose of Sharon.

Hydrangea paniculata and H. arborescens – Unlike their cousin H. macrophylla, these two hydrangeas bloom on new wood so cut them back hard to promote growth and flowers.  H. paniculata can be cut back to two buds above the base of the flower stem. Prune H. arborescens back to varying heights of 1 to 3 feet from the ground.

Fruit Trees – Fruit trees flower on growth from the previous season, but pruning should be done when the tree is dormant, so there will be some flower and fruit loss.  The good news is that pruning promotes vigorous growth and larger, better tasting fruits.  Each type of fruit tree has some special requirements so do some research before you begin cutting.

Roses – Hybrid tea, old-fashioned and climbing roses should be pruned right before the leaf buds break or if you live in a northern region, pruning should be done when you remove winter protection.

What NOT to Prune in Late Winter

Not all plants should be cut back in winter.  This is a list of plants that prefer to have their haircuts in late spring or summer.

Spring Flowering Shrubs – Forsythia, quince, azaleas, Bridal wreath spirea and other shrubs that bloom in spring should be pruned immediately after they flower.

Spring Flowering Trees – Lilacs, ornamental fruit trees and

Hydrangea macrophylla – Old-fashioned, pompon hydrangeas set bloom buds on the previous year’s growth.  It’s safe to remove faded flowers and dead branches.

Once Blooming Roses – Old-fashioned roses that only flower once each growing season, such as Damasks and Mosses bloom on old wood and should be pruned in the summer after they have flowered.

Gardenias – These should be pruned immediately after they bloom.

Bleeding Trees – Maples, birches, dogwoods, walnuts and elms produce copious amounts of sap when they are pruned in late winter.  Pruning won’t hurt the trees, but it will be less messy if you wait until summer.

Essential Tools

Pruning Stem SizesGoing back to the hair cut analogy, it is safe to assume that most of us wouldn’t want to have our hair cut with a pair of rusty pinking shears.  The same is true of pruning.  The best results come from using sharp, clean tools that are suited for the task.  Here is a list of pruning essentials.

Sharp pocket knife is great for making small cuts as needed.

Hedge shears are designed to cut small twigs or shrubs, but not anything much larger than the size of a pencil.  They are a must for broadleaf evergreens such as boxwoods, hollies and yews.

By-pass pruners are suited good for cuts about the size a pencil and can be used for perennials and shrubs with thin stems like roses or azaleas.

Loppers are a tool for making big bites when you need to get some leverage.  They are best for using on dead wood because they tend to crush rather than cut.  This crushing action can damage living cells in a branch, which could cause a longer healing time for the tree or shrub.

Saws are also ideal for large branches and can be used for cutting living wood.  The more teeth on the saw the finer the cut and the easier the healing process will be on the plant.

Pole saws and pole pruners are handy for reaching into large shrubs or for working overhead.

Good to Know:  When to Call in a Professional.

If you can’t reach a limb from the ground with a pole pruner, it’s time to call a pro.  This also applies if the limbs are heavier than you can manage or if the tree is near power lines.

Essential Tools for the Vegetable Garden

Walk into any garden center or flip through a garden supply catalog and you are bound to see an overwhelming number of garden tools. From hedge shears to hukari knives there is a tool for every task. When it comes to vegetable gardening there are seven essential tools you want to have on hand – a trowel, sharp shooter, garden fork, watering wand, hand pruners, staking materials, and twine.

Trowel – A trowel makes actions like digging, mixing and planting easier on you because it’s basically used as an extension of your hand.

Sharp Shooter – To create deeper, more precise holes, you’ll need a sharp shooter. This is a specific type of shovel with a long, narrow blade. It provides you with more leverage than a trowel and more control than a large garden shovel.

Garden Fork – Another great tool for working with the soil is a garden fork. Its primary function is to loosen or turn over soil, but it can also be used to rake out weeds or large rocks.

Watering Wand – Once your plants are in place, you will really appreciate the value of a watering wand. This tool allows you to be more precise in the amount of water applied to a particular area, which means more consistent watering with less waste. It also prevents some of the achy muscles associated with bending and stretching to water those hard-to-reach areas.

Hand Pruners – There’s nothing better than a great pair of pruners to manage the size and shape of individual plants. This is especially true when it comes to the lanky varieties that can easily over grow their bed companions. They are also handy for harvesting fruits and veggies with tough stems like tomatoes and peppers.

Staking and Twine – The last two things that every gardener needs to have on hand are staking materials and twine. These two work together to keep your vegetable garden in order. First, they provide an area for climbing plants to grow. And secondly, they create an aesthetic design element as a focal point in the garden.

Having the right tool for the job simplifies things and will ultimately give you more time to enjoy your garden.

Four Innovative Tools for Raking Leaves

Much like death and taxes we can always count on autumn leaves and the annual backbreaking chore of collecting them with a rake and bag. I’ve decided that this is going to be the year that I get excited about raking leaves. How? Gadgetry of course. I’ve selected five tools to try out with the hope that one of them will make the job easier. Maybe you’d like to try one of these too?

True Temper Clog-Free Rake

It’s hard to beat a rake when it comes to gathering leaves. Even if you use a leaf blower, you still need a rake. My main frustration with rakes is the leaves get woven between the tines. This incarnation has tines that bend down 90 degrees and connect to make a V-shape. Because it’s made of poly instead of metal the tines won’t bend out of shape either. Reviews I’ve read say that the rake works well on leaves, twigs and pine needles. It’s available in 24-inch and 30-inch sizes.

Leaf Scoops from Gardex®®

A thought that frequently crosses my mind while bagging leaves is "I wish I had giant dinner-plate-shaped hands."€� Well, that wish is going to come true this year with the help of Gardex Leaf Scoops. The promise here is the ability to grab more leaves at one time without having the rely on the awkward rake and hand method. These will also be great for picking up thorny stems when I prune my roses in spring

Bag Butler®®

This is a pretty simple concept that I’m hoping will make a big difference in how I bag leaves. The Bag Butler®® is a piece of heavy duty plastic with side panels that fold flat when not in use. One slips a bag over the Bag Butler®® and bends the side panels backwards so that the tension will cause them to stand open. I feel certain that there will be some finessing required to get the Bag Butler®® set up, but I think it will be worth it because the plastic sleeve prevents twigs from ripping through the bag. You can also lay the leaf bag on its side to rake leaves right in.

Leaf Loader from Structured Solutions

This tool is a flexible disc that bends into a cannoli shape. Cover one end with a bag or yard waste bin, rake leaves onto the Leaf Loader then tip everything up and the leaves slide right into the bag or bin. An center strap adjusts to make the Leaf Loader as wide or narrow as you need. This looks like it would be an excellent tool for carrying leaves to the compost bin.

8 Clever Ways to Get Your Garden Tools Organized

I am a “grab and throw” kind of gardener so it’s not in my nature to take time to put things in their proper place. However, when I had a new shed built at the Garden Home Retreat I was inspired to reform my ways. There’s nothing like a clean, empty space to bring out my inner neatnik. Before I had a chance to junk it up I created a special place for various tools and supplies so I could put things away without slowing down too much.

It’s been a few months since I’ve been using the shed and I’m happy to report that so far, my plan is working! So I figured if my ideas could change the habits of a scatter bug like me, my tips might be helpful to you, too.

Outline your tools on the wall to show where they belong.

Outline Tools on the Wall

A few nails in stud walls make handy hangers to hold tools like shovels, rakes and hoes. Take a pen and draw an outline of each tool on the wall behind it. The outline not only helps show where the tools belong, but the sight of an empty space lets you know what’s missing. If you go a step further and spray paint the handles of your tools a bright florescent orange, you’ll have no trouble finding them in the garden.

Shelves with staggered widths are easier to keep neat.

Step Ladder Your Shelves

Vary the depth of your shelves with the narrowest at the top. With the top shelf being narrow, it’s easier to see everything. Use the bottom shelves to store larger items like boxes and tubs.

An old basket hung on the wall makes a great hose holder.

Hose Hanger

You can repurpose an old metal basket mounted on the wall to hold the garden hose. Inside the basket store sprayer heads and other water hose accessories.

A bucket filled with sand and mineral oil keep tools clean and rust free.

Quick Clean-up for Hand Tools

Tools like pruners and trowels can get pitted and covered in rust without regular cleaning. Keeping them ready to use is as easy as sticking them in a bucket of sand mixed with a little mineral oil. The sand acts like sandpaper, cleaning off the debris, and the oil keeps water from damaging the metal. Plus, the bucket makes a good place to store the tools so you’ll know right where they are.

Repurpose an old file box for storing seeds.

Roomy Seed Box

An old file box is a handy place to store seeds. Use file separators to organize seed packets according to planting seasons and whether they are for starting indoors or sowing directly in the garden.

The tines of an old garden rake are good for hanging things like bundles of drying flowers.

Repurpose Your Old Garden Rakes

Do you have an old garden rake taking up space in your tool shed? Take the rake part off the handle and hang it on the wall. Now you’ve got a place to hang hand tools or bundles of flowers for drying.

Half used seed packets can be clipped and hung from a belt hanger.

Belt Hanger Hold Up

What about that belt hanger taking up space in your closet? Put it to better use in the tool shed. The prongs on the hanger made a convenient place to store partially used packets of seeds. After opening the packet, just clamp the top shut with an office clip and hang it on one of the hooks.

Spice jars are just the right size for storing small nails and such.

Spice Jar Storage

Little items like nails, screws and matches are easy to keep handy in spice jars. Put the jars in a spice holder to keep these small items organized.

Caring for Hand Tools

Gardening tools can be expensive. And if you’re like me, you’re so busy during the spring and summer, you really can’t take care of them properly. And it’s not until fall when things slow down that you can give them the attention they deserve.

Recently, I’ve discovered a way that makes taking care of them much easier, there’s really nothing to it. It involves three basic ingredients; a bucket, some mineral oil and sand.

Bucket of Sand and Mineral Oil with ToolsTools like my pruners always seem to be pitted and covered in rust. It’s because a lot of times I leave them out in the garden. Now by keeping them well oiled, I can keep them rust free and the mechanism in good working order. I do this by storing them in a bucket of sand and mineral oil. It’s easy.

Start by filling a 5 gallon bucket with a bag of play sand and then pour about 1/2 gallon of mineral oil evenly over the top, let it sift through and then push your tools in. One of the great things about this idea is that the coarseness of the sand serves like sand paper, it keeps debris off of the tools. And of course, the oil keeps water from damaging the metal.

Now, an easy way to take care of larger tools is to take vegetable oil in a can and just spray it on a tool. What I like about the bucket is that it’s become a permanent home for my hand tools; I always know where they are as long as I put them back.

Timing Your Pruning Jobs

Tree PruningYou can tell a lot about gardeners by watching them prune. I tend to whip through the garden like a cyclone, leaving a wake of clipped branches and stems behind me. Others are meticulous in their efforts, making a careful study of the plant before and after each cut and cleaning up debris as they go.

Whether you are a Tasmanian Devil, Nervous Nelly or fall somewhere in between, pruning does not have to be daunting. As long as you use good, sharp tools, make a clean cut and consider the growth habit of the plant you will be safe. And when in doubt you can’t go wrong by just removing dead wood and branches that cross one another. I think the hardest aspect of pruning is deciding when it is the appropriate time to tackle the job.

Here is a general list of plant groups with some tips on when they should be pruned. As additional resources I suggest you read Lee Reich’s The Pruning Book (Taunton Press 1997) and Peter McHoy’s Pruning – A Practical Guide (Abbeville Press 1993).

Clematis
Clematis is broken down into 3 pruning groups. Group A Early Flowering clematis blooms on the previous season’s growth and should be pruned immediately after they flower.

Group B Large Flowering Hybrids often bloom twice in a season. Lightly prune in February or March to remove dead and diseased wood, but wait until after the first flowering to do any heavy cutting to manage size.

Group C Late Flowering clematis such as "Sweet Autumn Clematis" should be cut back to 12 to 24 inches from the ground in February or March.

Trees
Most hardwood trees should be pruned in winter while they are dormant. This allows you to see the branches and make cuts that will maintain the tree’s natural shape. It also gives the tree a full growing season to heal. Cut the branches off right above the branch collar. This is the area at the juncture of the limb and the tree. You can identify it by the whorls of wrinkled bark. Cutting just above this area rather than flat against the tree will ensure quicker healing. This area of the tree contains special anti-microbial chemicals and phenols, which help inhibit decay. If the cut is made here it’s not necessary to use pruning paint, nature will take care of it.

Roses
Hybrid tea, old-fashioned and climbing roses should be pruned right before the leaf buds break. In my zone 7 garden, I do this in late February. If you live in a cold climate, pruning should be done when you remove winter protection and the danger of frost has passed. An exception to this time frame is the old-fashioned roses that flower once each growing season, such as Damasks and Mosses. These varieties bloom on old wood and should be pruned in the summer after they have flowered.

Flowering Shrubs
The rule of thumb for pruning flowering shrubs is if it flowers after May the 15th, prune it in late winter or early spring for lots of bloom in summer. Prune shrubs like forsythia, quince and azaleas that flower before May the 15th as soon as the plant finishes flowering. This is because summer bloomers flower on new wood while spring flowering shrubs produce flower buds the previous growing season.

For the best bloom production follow the form of the plant rather than shearing it into a box or a ball. I think you will also find that the shrub just looks better when allowed to retain its natural shape.

Flowering Trees
Flowering trees follow the same rule as flowering shrubs. Summer bloomers like crape myrtles should be cut back in late winter, but spring flowering crabapples, redbuds and dogwoods should be pruned immediately after they bloom.

When it comes time to prune spring flowering trees, they will often already be leafed out. To make the job easier, mark the branches that you want to cut with paint or a ribbon while the tree is still dormant and you can clearly see the branch structure.

Evergreens
In general, broadleaf evergreens such as hollies and boxwoods don’t require much pruning. I find that a light pruning with a sharp pair of shears in spring before new growth begins and then again in summer works best. These broadleaf varieties will produce new growth where the cuts are made.

Caution should be used when pruning needle type evergreens such as pine or spruce because they don’t bounce back from a bad "haircut." These types of evergreens should only be pruned to remove diseased/damaged wood. This can be done any time of the year except when temperatures are below zero.

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