Sharpen those pruners. It’s time to start cutting in the garden.
Despite a run of warm days, this is the season when many landscape plants are dormant — or as dormant as they’re going to be in our temperate climate.
Making corrective cuts now will boost their health and encourage more buds, flowers and fruit.
First up are roses and deciduous fruit trees.
But other dormant plants will benefit from a shape-up now, too. It’s a lot easier to prune when your shrubs and trees are bare. You can see what you’re doing without contending with a canopy of leaves, and pests and diseases are not likely to be active.
It may seem crazy to cut back roses now. If yours are like mine, they’re still covered in leaves, buds and fresh flowers. But a closer look reveals that they’re tattered around the edges. If you don’t prune, the upcoming growth is destined to become a tangled, thorny mess by summer.
Start by chopping off the top in order to reduce the bush to about 3 feet tall.
Don’t worry about where you make the cuts. This is just the first round. Snip off any remaining flowers. Then strip the leaves and any suckers at the base by hand, using a downward tug. Watch out for thorns. Heavy, elbow-length gauntlet gloves provide good protection.
Next, stand back and evaluate the framework. Cut out dead or shriveled canes all the way to the base of the bush; old canes that are thicker than your thumb; and new canes that are distorted or smaller in diameter than a pencil.
Roses — like so many other plants — benefit from plenty of air flow through their centers. They also need sunlight to penetrate their crowns to initiate new bud growth, which results in better flowering.
So next, cut out any canes that cross over the middle.
Then shape what’s left. On shrub roses, keep pruning until five to seven canes remain. Trim the canes to 18 to 24 inches tall, varying the heights so that the bush will bloom with a more natural look. On hybrid tea roses, keep at least three to five canes. Depending on who’s providing advice, those canes can be trimmed 18 to 36 inches tall.
Finally, nip back any side branches that cross or rub against other branches or canes.
Make all your cuts just above an outward-facing bud. This encourages new growth to flare out, rather than tilt back toward the center of the bush.
Deciduous Fruit Trees
For all deciduous fruit trees, start by pruning any dead or diseased wood. Then remove rubbing or crossing branches.
Be sure to make clean cuts next to lower, heavier branches. Fruit trees are prone to diseases that can get their start in stubs that are left long enough to die back, while cuts close to larger branches protect and heal by producing new bark and wood.
Next, know how your particular fruit trees produce fruit.
Apple and pear trees, for instance, bear fruit on fuzzy, nubby spurs that emerge on branches at least a year old. Those spurs flower and fruit every year, so should be kept from one year to the next.
The only winter pruning of an apple tree — other than a light shaping for aesthetics — should be to remove dead or diseased wood, rubbing or crossing branches, and any remaining limbs that interfere with sunlight reaching the center of the tree. Sucker growth should be removed whenever it appears, at any time of year.
Pear trees require a heavier hand, as they produce tall, upright whips that should be headed back during dormancy. Thin the whips so that air and sunlight can penetrate the canopy. Then cut back the remaining whips by two thirds, to maximize the size of the fruit and to keep it in the lower arms of the tree.
Plum trees bear on long-lived spurs that take several years to form. In the meantime, just as with pear trees, thin each year’s new, upright whips so that they’re spaced about one foot apart. Then cut back those remaining whips by two thirds.
Peach trees bear on year-old wood. They also require the heaviest pruning of all because each branch bears fruit only once. As such, the trees should be cut back by more than one half each year.
Start by removing dead, diseased and rubbing branches. Then cut out any branches that have produced peaches.
Next, thin the branches so that all of the new, twiggy growth from last year ends up being spaced about a foot apart and the silhouette of the tree looks like an upside-down umbrella. Then head back the twiggy growth by another third.
This last step is necessary to pump the tree’s energy into the remaining fruit buds, which optimizes the size of the fruit. Otherwise, those full-length, new whips will bear more fruit, but of much smaller size.
Nectarine trees are related to peaches and bear fruit on year-old twiggy branches as well. Follow the same steps, except the twiggy branches can be left closer together, spaced about 8 inches apart.
Groom Grasses and Other Plants
By now, your big, billowy ornamental grasses are likely to be ragged visions of their former selves. If you haven’t already, cut them all the way to the ground. Use a weed whacker, machete or even kitchen scissors. There’s no point in leaving more than an inch or two of the past year’s foliage above ground, as new stalks will sprout from the crowns, not the stems.
Small, cool-season grasses, including the various blue fescues, may still be actively growing, so wield a lighter hand. Use a stiff rake to comb out the desiccated stems, or trim taller blades with a brush mower with the blade set on high.
Also take a look around your garden with a critical eye toward dead flowers and leggy growth. Pinch, nip and tuck wherever necessary to rejuvenate the plants and to pull them away from walls, windows and eaves.
Wait until March or April to cut back tropical and subtropical plants, such as bougainvillea, cannas, citrus trees and palm trees. Leave them alone until all danger of frost has passed and spring temperatures have begun to warm up.
In addition, assign pruning of taller trees to a certified arborist, who will use proper pruning equipment and climbing techniques, and know just where to make cuts to ensure the overall health and beauty of your trees.
Guides to Pruning Fruit Trees
For information about how to prune specific fruit trees, turn to: “The Home Orchard: Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees,” by Chuck A. Ingels, Pamela M. Geisel and Maxwell V. Norton, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication 3485; or “How to Prune Fruit Trees” by R. Sanford Martin, Martin Bio-Products, which is often carried in nurseries.
Seeds of Wisdom
A dead-looking branch may be quite alive underneath. Flex the branch or scrape the bark with your fingernail or a pocket knife. If the branch has give, or if there’s green beneath the bark, it still possesses life.
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