Sunday, February 28, 2010

Knowing When and Where to Prune

Even though this morning's sun has been replaced by dull overcast sky, I couldn't fight the need to be out in the garden today. Perhaps it's my aforementioned cabin fever or the emotion that is running through the online garden community the past 48 hours, but it just didn't seem right to be out of the garden today.

So I grabbed by bypass loppers and hand pruners and decided to do a little thinning in the landscape. Pruning has always been matter of unskilled labor for me, as I'm not great about paying attention to the rules of timing and amount of pruning. If a branch is bothering my sense of line and rhythm in the garden, or if it's become an annoyance in the physical flow of the landscape, I tend to cut it off.

Recently, I read an article in BBC Gardeners' World by Matthew Wilson on pruning. Wilson breaks it down to the "four Ds and one C" of what to prune: dead, diseased, damaged, dying and crossing/rubbing branches. His criteria was fresh in my mind as I walked through the landscape, and I started to wonder if I could put my criteria into words as well.

A lot of the pruning I do involves lateral branches that have either grown too low on the tree or shrub or into walking areas of the landscape. On this serviceberry, the branch was growing about four feet off the ground, and its foliage often blocked the perennials that grow below.

Often, pruning involves cutting off new shoots that emerge from the base of the plant, as with this willow (Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki'). Unpruned, these new shoots will grow up around the trunk, distracting focus from the form and foundation of the shrub.

Sometimes, as in the case with this red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), all of the trunks and branches had become diseased and were not worth keeping. The new growth that emerges from these stumps during the summer will determine whether this shrub will survive at all. In these more drastic cases, pruning to the ground it the only way to find out if the plant has any health left in it.

In some cases, pruning becomes a surgical process. With this clematis (Clematis x jackmanii), pruning involves finding the new bud growth along each woody vine, and making the pruning cut just above the buds. At this time of year, the clematis look like tangled, dead masses, but a careful pruning will reveal this season's growth waiting to emerge.

As any gardener will attest, there is a great deal of metaphor in the growing of plants. I couldn't help but find parallels and a tiny bit of catharsis as I made each cut. Sometimes a twig is just a twig, but I silently wondered if perhaps we should be better about pruning the dead, dying, damaged and diseased out of more than just our gardens. Maybe then we would find the same vigor and rejuvenation in our lives that the landscape enjoys after a few well placed cuts.

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