Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2005
Regional Report

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The branching collar is a special kind of bark tissue that grows quickly to cover injuries and pruning scars.

Let the Pruning Begin!

Dormant season pruning is my very favorite! The fact that I tend to cut hard during the growing season, even on evergreen shrubs, means that my mistakes are much more evident. However, when I prune deciduous plants in winter, I'm left with an artistic-looking frame instead of something that resembles a misguided topiary.

We prune for several reasons: to remove any dead, diseased, or injured wood; to improve air circulation and reduce fungus disease; and for aesthetic purposes. A rose growing 13 feet in the air just can't be enjoyed, so by lowering the overall size of the plant, you can bring the flowers down to a more easily viewed perspective. Fruit trees are kept low by selective pruning so that you can reach the fruit at harvest time.

Also, when you are pruning, you are closely examining every branch and twig on the plant. It is an intimate procedure that brings you in personal contact with your garden. I like to think of plants as living beings, which of course they are. Having undergone a badly performed surgery myself, I have great empathy for the pain and misery that a poor pruning job can cause. However, I also understand the importance of pruning away the diseased portion for the overall good of the whole. Sometimes, you just have to cut hard. But cutting hard must be done correctly.

Keep the Collar
When I first started dormant pruning back in the 1970s, the theory was to cut as close to the trunk as possible to prevent sucker growth. Now, science has found that plants have what is called a branching collar. If you look closely at the base of a branch where it meets the trunk, you will notice that there is a ring of bark that resembles something like elephant skin. This is a special kind of tissue that grows quickly to cover a wound.

In the wild, storms bring down whole limbs. To prevent invasion by insects or rot, trees need to heal themselves quickly. The sap is the first line of defense, sealing off the wound to insects. The branching collar takes over from there, growing quickly over the injured area to create an impermeable seal. Mother Nature is miraculous, and so we should help, rather than hinder, her efforts.

I remember with regret many trees that I cut back flush with the trunk. Those poor trees bled and suffered for years before they could properly heal. Now I know better, and hope that after reading this, you will too. When you are removing an entire branch, whether on a rose or a mighty oak, determine where the branching collar is, and make your cut on the outer side of that tissue. Try not to leave a stub, or the plant will develop sucker growth later in the season.

There are many garden clubs and public parks that give pruning demonstrations during the winter months. Heather Farm in Walnut Creek has a large volunteer army of rose pruners who are happy to share their expertise. The gardeners at Filoli in Woodside have thousands of roses to prune and don't mind answering questions. If you are unsure of your pruning skills, make an effort this year to learn more. And remember, Mother Nature is very forgiving.

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