Over the summer we've occasionally talked about the joys of shrubs and trees -- or, tree-like entities, i.e. shrubs grafted on "standards" or small tree trunks. So we should probably spend a little time talking about shrub and tree maintenance, better known as pruning.
Yes, it sounds incredibly boring, like folding the laundry or cleaning the trash from under the passenger seat in the car.
But think of it this way: as an act of dominance, of power and control over plants that think they can just grow wherever and how ever much they want, and act of forcing them to look good and fit where you have room for them. Then it starts to be fun.
It's also a creative exercise. You can prune or train many otherwise utilitarian shrubs to be beautiful and interesting. All you need is a little courage and a pair of pruning shears -- just the utility clippers you probably already have.
There are a few "don'ts" to begin with. Certified arborist Nickel LaFleur suggests we limit our efforts to deciduous trees and shrubs and not try to prune evergreens or conifers.
They're difficult to prune properly and easy to injure. And one nice thing about deciduous shrubs, they tend to be relatively cheap so if you screw up it's not like killing a $500 tree.
I'd go a step further and say stick to shrubs and trees that are no taller than you are. Pruning big trees with fat limbs requires dangerous tools and climbing on things you can fall off. If you must mess with these, call a professional arborist.
But lilacs that haven't yet zoomed out of reach, honeysuckle, forsythia, cotoneaster, Siberian pea, certain fruit trees -- they're all fair game and very responsive once they know what you want them to do.
Maybe you want to cut away all limbs but one and make it a trunk (properly called a "leader"), then lop off lower branches to encourage a flourishing bouquet on top. Or perhaps you want a 3-foot mounded bush, or limbs that fan out in a circle, or something that turns left halfway up.
It's best to start pruning, training and shaping when a shrub is young, LaFleur said, about a year old. But don't be afraid to tackle one that's been growing for a while -- and annoying you because it's leggy or droopy or getting too bushy for its space.
First, decide what you want the shrub to look like. This can mean anything from simply wanting a flat-top hedgy look or an elaborate espalier. Lollypop on a stick anyone?
Whatever, cut one branch at a time, LaFleur says. Do not use hedge trimmers. Clip each branch according to your over-all plan, but make each cut close to the node, not between the nodes.
If you want to shape a shrub, pruning is only half the job, as English horticulturist Bob Flowerdew says in his new book, "Pruning, Training and Tidying."
Flowerdew is a gardening TV star in England, where they really get into pruning. The book is short, has big print, lots of pictures and it advocates doing the least work necessary.
Clearly, it speaks to me. However, it's not Alaska specific. England is a place where shrubs grow in what they laughingly refer to as "winter." Still, I found it user friendly.
"It's not what you remove that's important," Flowerdew says, "but how what you have left will grow back." Branches can be re-trained with something as easy as twine, or simply by policing re-growth and getting rid of what you don't want.
There's more to the fancy stuff, of course. More than we have room for here. Check out the Alaska DNR-Forestry site for help, the International Society of Arboriculture website, get information from the Cooperative Extension Service, ask a Master Gardener, or just barrel ahead and see how it goes.
Most deciduous shrubs are tolerant, says LaFleur. Some can be carved to the ground and grow back good as new.
And, if you plan to trim your lilac, now is probably the time to do it. Lilacs start to set next year's flowers soon after this year's flowers die. If you prune after that, you'll be cutting off next year's blossoms.