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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Know your plant's needs and response!

by Carolyn Singer
January 15, 2011

appleNow that winter's chill has ensured dormancy, we can prune many plants in the weeks ahead. Sharpen your cutting tools and head for the garden!

basket grass after pruningIn my garden there is so much to prune and cut back that I must prioritize. Ornamental grasses come first. While I hate to destroy the fall seedheads and graceful leaves, new growth begins early (usually March) with these ornamentals. Cutting back last year's plant will allow this next season's growth to be even more beautiful.

First the weed eater. This wonderful tool makes quick work of even the largest maiden grass. Cut back as close to the crown as possible leaving minimal stubble. Hedge clippers may allow you to get very close to the crown with sedges, fescues, and similar small tufted grasses. Sometimes mature crowns are rounded. Your clipping should follow the natural shape of the plant.

Evergreen ornamental grasses such as blue oat grass (Helichtotrichon sempervirens) and many species of sedge (Carex) may not require any pruning at all unless the plant needs reinvigorating, or has been damaged by winter snows. If the plant does not look good, cut it back to the crown.

If perennials were not cut back in late fall, now is the time to do that too. Those that have died back, such as Paeonia (peony), Rudbeckia, and Helianthus should be cut at ground level. There is no reason to leave dead stems above ground. Evergreen and semi-evergreen perennials such as Perovskia and Penstemon may be pruned back to six inches.

Some of my Clematis (the early bloomers) were pruned in the summer right after bloom. Late bloomers, Clematis tangutica, which blooms with yellow bell-shaped flowers in mid to late summer, and sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata), a fall bloomer with fragrant white flowers, are pruned each winter before new growth starts. They both bloom on the current season's growth, so a good winter pruning encourages lots of growth and fantastic flowering.

Marion blackberries, ollalie berries and raspberries get pruned in winter too, to ensure the best crop possible for this coming season.

Pruning the bareroot fruit trees before their buds swell is the next priority. I just purchased a dormant semi-dwarf peach tree and have removed a little more than a half of the trunk, leaving a few shortened branches, and a selection of buds for other potential branches. This year's growth will determine next year's pruning, hopefully providing several young branches from which to choose the three to five scaffold branches for my mature tree.

bareroot tree after pruningEarly training of fruit trees is critically important (photo left). The scaffold branches will hold secondary branching which will, hopefully, produce a lot of fruit. Pruning in the early years shapes the future, with strong branches and good fruiting wood. Apples and pears will fruit on spurs, peaches and nectarines primarily on new wood from the previous season.

32-year old apple after pruningEach year prune your fruit trees with a mature image in mind. Try not to prune too heavily in any one year. With older trees, remove vertical growth and crossing branches. Use thinning cuts as much as possible, cutting back to the point of origin. Heading cuts, which prune back to a bud, force even more growth, and should be done only when necessary to remove damage or encourage new growth. My oldest apple tree (32 years, photo right) is loaded with fruit almost every year. I have kept its shape open and horizontal. An apple tree with too much branching will shade the fruiting spurs, which will decline in vigor. Prune to allow light to the fruiting wood, and to encourage horizontal branching.

When winter storms interfere with pruning, I often must schedule the sequence. Cherries, apricots, plums, prunes, peaches and nectarines are early bloomers. They are first on the list of edibles to be pruned in winter. I try to get the raspberries done by mid-February. Apples and pears may be pruned next. My grapes are usually the last plants to be pruned, often as late as March.

Alex Shigo, regarded as the "father of modern arboriculture' left a legacy of rich information about tree care. One of his most important discoveries in his more than 26 years with the Forest Service was how trees heal their wounds. Make your thinning cuts close to, but not into the rings that form the branch bark collar. The tree will compartmentalize, sealing off the area of the wound, and heal itself.

Pruning brings us close to our plants, and unites us all as stewards of our land.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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