Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
February, 2010
Regional Report

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Instead of constantly chopping the lorapetalum down, limb it up into a small tree.

Pruning for Effect

Some say the mark of a true gardener is the ability to prune and the ability not to. It is certainly true that random pruning is about as unpleasant to witness as a madly overgrown landscape. Somewhere in between lies the value of timely pruning.

Pruning for plant growth
Young trees and shrubs can be slow to get growing or erratic in the way they send out first branches. Proper pruning influences both the rate and direction of new growth, especially in the first three years after planting. That's when you can tip prune shrubs to shape them into pleasing forms, usually mounds or vase-shapes. To tip prune, remove only the very end of each branch, no more than 2 sets of leaves. If, however, one side of the shrub is thicker than the other you can take a bit more off the thick side. Later in the season or perhaps next winter, you may want to tip prune only the slow side to encourage its new growth. This practice can be done several times a year on young evergreens, but only once right after flowering shrubs bloom.

Young trees
Too often we wait to see how new trees will do on their own, sometimes to our regret. Staking is not the only solution, and in fact should be limited. It's better to select the strongest and best placed side branches from the very first season and remove the rest to increase the tree's stability. Likewise, if the lower branches will be in the way later on, remove them after first few winters when the trunk has developed some girth. If you are planting fruit trees and thus want to direct sunlight into the center of the tree, the sooner you top the tree, the better. Some fruit trees come with illustrations to guide you, but such diagrams are also available from your county agent or state cooperative extension service.

Pruning solution
Smart and timely pruning solves common landscape problems and can increase the value of the plants in your landscape. Overgrown shrubs like lorapetalum, cleyera and ligustrum can block views or dominate when they should harmonize in beds and borders. Instead of cutting them back severely each year, remove most of the lower branches, leaving a canopy to bloom. The view through the now-naked trunks will be much more interesting and will allow sunlight in to ground level for annual flowers or bulbs. This process of limbing up is a fine way to deal with old shrubs planted too close to doorways and utility boxes. By turning them into small trees, they can frame instead of block the way. Don't overlook the investment of time put into those overgrown specimens- those who have only blank yards spend lots of money on full grown landscape plants. All you have to do is prune.

Specialized pruning
People who create thick evergreen topiaries or elegant bonsai trees are a special bunch. Their plants are as close to sculpture as it gets, and so is the process they use. Everyone who prunes can learn from their ability to add beauty by subtracting plant material. Each step of their specialized pruning techniques controls growth so you see what is left after the excess is removed. The observer sees a blob of plant material, but the gardener sees the shape within the shape. By removing the obstacles in the way of the desired shape, the pruned plant takes on whatever personal whimsy is intended. Such specialized and routine pruning keeps new growth coming in the topiary to maintain its color and density but suppresses any excess growth in the bonsai. While we may not seek the perfection of these forms of gardening, we can look before we prune.

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