While They are Sleeping
By Paige Brown
Skeletons of their summer selves, the trees’ bare branches stand in defiance of winter’s harsh temperatures. Japanese maples reveal the twists and turns of their sinuous dance, the mimosas’ limbs stretch out in a graceful vase, and the crape myrtle branches are a tangled mass of summer’s growth akin to the exuberance of a toddler. Deciduous trees and shrubs – those that lose their leaves in the fall – reduce metabolic activity and halt physical growth when temperatures begin to drop; they go into hibernation. Vascular cells that move sap within the plant shut down to conserve moisture; consequently, the leaves turn color and fall to the ground.
Late winter pruning during this period of sleep significantly reduces plant stress, not to mention the fact that it is much easier to assess what you need to cut when the limbs are bare. Trees that you can prune now include crape myrtle, ginkgo, mimosa, and golden rain tree; shrubs include butterfly bush, mallow (perennial hibiscus), and St. John’s wort.
Maple, birch, and elm trees produce a lot of sap – think maple syrup – during winter, so prune them in the summer. Late winter is not the time to prune early spring blooming plants, even though they are dormant. Pruning these plants now would remove this spring’s flowers. Prune spring bloomer such as cherry, dogwood, and redbud after their flowers fade. Lightly prune these plants while they are blooming and bring their branches indoors to brighten your home.
To prune trees, start by removing any damaged, dead, or diseased branches. In the case of disease, be sure to prune well below the infected wood and disinfect your pruners with a 10% bleach solution. Next, look for branches that are touching each other and choose the smallest to eliminate. Remove ‘suckers’ growing at the base of the tree, as well as small branches that are growing toward the center of the plant to improve air circulation. Finally, prune to shape the plant and remove up to a third of its mass.
The point where a branch meets the trunk of a tree is referred to as the ‘branch collar’. Make your cut here to remove an entire branch. If you are cutting a large branch, make the first cut from the bottom a few inches away from the collar to reduce the chances of tearing the bark. ‘Heading’ is a pruning technique used to shorten shoots on a tree and encourage dense growth. Cut the shoot or branch just above a lateral bud.
Summer blooming shrubs are handled a bit differently than trees. After removing damaged, dead, or diseased branches, prune butterfly bushes and roses to shape, opening the interior of the plants to promote good air circulation. Severe pruning is used to reinvigorate older butterfly bushes; cut the entire plant back to 18” – 24”. This method of hard pruning is the preferred way to prune St. John’s wort and mallow each year.
Tools of the Trade
By-pass pruners are designed to work like scissors, their blades passing each other making the cut. They are useful for cutting small, pencil sized branches from trees and for pruning shrubs. Loppers have larger blades and longer handles made to provide leverage for cutting branches up to 1 ½”. Pruning saws are designed for cutting branches larger than 1” and are characterized by curved blades with coarse teeth.
Keep your tools clean to prevent rust from developing and disease from spreading. Sharp tools make clean cuts, allowing the plant to heal quickly, not to mention working with them is a pleasure.
If you have large trees or trees near power lines that need pruning, consider hiring a pro. Operating gas powered pole saws and chain saws requires knowledge and experience. And pruning trees near power lines is very dangerous, too risky for a novice.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” my grandmother used to say, and the same holds true for crape myrtles. There is more than one way to prune these trees; the desired effect dictates the pruning technique. To maintain the beauty of the tree’s natural shape, follow basic pruning techniques.
If a profusion of flowers is your primary goal, consider ‘pollarding,’ a centuries-old practice that involves cutting trees back to the same place every year. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as “crape murder”, pollarding controls the size of trees and increase the proliferation of flowers, doing no harm to the tree.