Jeff Lowenfels: Get out your shears; now is the time for pruning

Daily News correspondentFebruary 26, 2014 

There is a bit of responsibility that comes with writing a weekly garden column, particularly because the aim is to alert the area garden community to things that should be done during a given week. Time is of the essence when it comes to Alaska gardening. You snooze, miss the week and lose the season for a specific crop or chore.

Take pruning trees and shrubs, for example. Alas, more than one year I have lost a bit of sleep because I failed to note the proper time to do this chore. As I drive around town these days, I kick myself for this. Too many of us have trees that simply need shaping and neatening up.

The reason I write about this now is because late winter is a great time to prune most trees and shrubs. The big exception here in Alaska are lilacs. These set blossoms the previous year and so pruning simply means there won't be flowers this season.

Lilacs (and rhododendrons and azaleas too, not that there are many hereabouts) aside, the reason for late winter pruning is twofold. First, the sap is not running. If you ever cut a birch tree in the early spring when it was flowing, you know why this makes a difference. What a mess sap can make.

As important, it is easier to properly shape a tree or shrub when it is naked of leaves. This is because without leaves, you can actually see what needs to be done and what you are actually doing. So read on if you have trees and shrubs. Don't let the snow fool you. It is late winter, enough daylight has returned and now is a great time to go outside and do a bit of work.

First, trees. Why would a tree need pruning? I can think of lots of reasons. Safety is the first one. Don't wait for a dead limb to fall. Dead limbs that are in danger of falling must go now. Actually, anything dead should be cut back even if it doesn't present a danger.

Shaping is the second reason. Trees become misshapen when they grow too close to buildings, fences and sometimes even shrubs and other trees. While it is best to move these, often this is not feasible and so cuts must be made. Sometimes, thinning out growth is necessary to "open up" a view. And, sometimes a tree will grow funny, limbs will cross, touch and even divert other limbs. This should be corrected.

Pruning tools for trees include a good tree saw, clippers and even a chain saw. You do not need to use any wound salves, dressings or coverings after you prune. Trees don't need them, and they end up providing great homes for pathogens that attack trees.

It is most important to make each cut properly. Always start with a few passes or cuts on the bottom side of the limb. Then cut from the top. This way, when you hit the breaking point, you will get a clean snap instead of the limb breaking off and peeling bark as it falls, still attached. And start your cut about half an inch up from where the limb is attached. This is necessary so the remaining part heals. Cut too close or too far away from where it is attached and it won't heal properly.

Shrubs, individually or in hedges, should also be pruned now. You can use your shears, electric or manual, or hand clippers. Include raspberries as shrubs. When you prune shrubbery, you do so to shape it, for sure, but also to keep it growing thick. This is because for most shrubs, when you cut a branch, it will fork into two new ones. This is the time of year you can take as much off shrubs as you want. Whack down that cotoneaster or caragana hedge if it needs reshaping. It will grow back thicker.

So, there you have it. Go do it. If you wait, then you will have to wait until after spring, when there isn't so much sap running up from the roots bringing stored food to the buds. If you wait, you will lose out on valuable time during the growing season.

Jeff's garden calendar

-- Eighth Annual Spring Garden Conference: Put on by the Alaska Botanical Garden: March 14 and 15. This is a must-attend with lots of area garden experts (too many to mention here but you can see the list at www.alaskabg.org). Space is always limited and gardeners get turned away. Do not let this happen. Register today at www.alaskabg.org.

-- Flower seeds to start: Sweet peas, rhodochiton

-- Vegetable seeds to start: Celery

Jeff Lowenfels is author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web." Contact him at teamingwithmicrobes.com.

 

 

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