Pruning Gets Hectic

Easiest to Prune Plants

Most of the pruning I do is “dormant pruning,” that is, pruning while plants are leafless. A few weeks ago, pruning was a relaxed affair with still-cold temperatures keeping the buds only slowly swelling in anticipation of upcoming growth. Then a few warm days kicked them into gear, making pruning more hectic.

Berries of July

Berries, later

Hecticness is little problem with those plants that are the easiest to prune because the work can be quick; other plants require my standing back with arms folded for some study before every few cuts.

Here on my farmden, easiest to prune plants include mature ornamental trees, shrubs, and vines, and even some fruits. Those fruits are American persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry. They’re so easy because they can get by with little or no pruning.

Mostly what I do with the three fruit trees, every year or so, is to take a lopper or a saw and hack back . . . whoops, I mean “prune” . . . a tall limb back to a weaker growing, usually more horizontal, side branch. That’s to keep fruit within safe reach or not falling so far of its own accord that it splatters upon the ground. It also doesn’t leave a tree looking like a victim; done correctly and you hardly know that steel has been taken to the tree.

Easy, but Need Annual Pruning

Then there are easy-to-prune plants that do need annual pruning, but pruning them is as easy as following a recipe. Brambles — blackberries and raspberries — are counted in here. They all have perennial roots but their canes are biennial. That is, canes just grow the first year, then fruit and then die their second year.

The first step in pruning these plants, then, is to get down near ground level and cut all the two-year-old canes to the ground. These canes broadcast their age with peeling bark and an old and dead, or dying, appearance.

Gardeners telling tell me about their raspberry or blackberry patches make me cringe. “Patch” does conjure up an image of a cozy, cottage-y planting, but isn’t the way to grow these fruits if you want to make picking easy and limit disease problems. All of which leads to step two of this recipe.

Red or yellow raspberries spread to create a patch by sending up shoots via underground runners; black raspberries and blackberries do so by arching their long canes to the ground where they take root and make new plants. Too many new plants, in either case.

Red raspberry bed, pruned

Red raspberry bed, pruned

So I limit my red or yellow raspberries to a swath only a foot wide, and then within that swath remove enough plants so those that remain are a few inches apart.

With black raspberries and blackberries, I remove any plants closer than 3 to 5 feet apart (depending on their vigor) and then thin out remaining canes in each remaining clump to the fattest and healthiest-looking half-dozen.

One more step for these berries is to shorten red or yellow canes enough to keep them from flopping around. How much depends on how tall they are and how they are trellised, if at all. Black raspberries and blackberries fruit on side shoots; these need to be shortened to about 18 inches long.

(So-called everbearing — aka “fallbearing” — red or yellow raspberries can be pruned as described above. Or, just lop the whole planting to the ground late each fall, sacrificing midsummer harvest but still offering late summer and early fall berries.)

Also Easy

Two more fruits also fall into this easy-to-prune category. 

Lowbush blueberries, like brambles, bear on two-year-old (and, to a lesser extent, three-year-old stems). But they grow too many stems to selectively prune them.

So I take my hedge trimmer and every other year, or every third year, cut all stems to the ground.

Shearing lowbush blueberries

Shearing lowbush blueberries

There’s no crop the year they are pruned but dividing a planting in halves or thirds and pruning a different half or third every year circumvents that drawback.

Lowbush blueberries, flower buds

Lowbush blueberries, flower buds

Blackcurrants bear in a similar manner to lowbush blueberries but their stems are few enough for selective pruning. I cut to the ground any 3-year-old stems as well as anything more than the best half-dozen 1-year-old stems.

Blackcurrant, before & after pruning

Blackcurrant, before & after pruning

Just a Wee Bit More Difficult

From here, I move on to shrubs — only slightly more difficult to prune — that bear fruit on older wood, which determines which stems I cut out. 

Most gooseberries and redcurrants, for example, bear best on stems 2 and 3 years old. So the strategy here is the same as for brambles, except that the stems that I cut away are those that are 4-years-old. After that I remove excess new stems arising from ground level. When pruning is finished, the shrubs are left with about six each of one-, two-, and three-year-old stems.

Pruning blueberry bushes also follows the same strategy, except that since the bushes bear well on stems up to six-years-old, I prune away stems older than this and cut to the ground all except the healthiest 4 new stems.

Blueberry before & after pruning

Blueberry before & after pruning

Now on to the fruit trees. Wait, I can’t do it now! I’ve got to run outside, grab my hand shears, lopper, and pocket saw, and do some pruning. Stay tuned next week for fruit tree pruning.

Redcurrant espalier

Redcurrant espalier. How to prune it? Some other time.

For more pruning detail, more plants, and more techniques, see my book The Pruning Book.

Late Winter Sap, Pruning, and Planting

The Sap is Flowing

In past years, now is when we would always hope to make enough maple syrup to last until the following year at about this time. Maple syrup consumption has dropped dramatically, leaving me with quite a backlog of the stuff. So trees haven’t been tapped for the past few years.Tapping a maple tree

Not that we ever made that much maple syrup. Four tapped trees always produced sufficient sap for a year’s worth of syrup. It had to, because that’s how many spiles (taps) and buckets we own.

Our operation was nothing like what I came upon a couple of weeks ago cross-country skiing in the woods of northern Vermont. All of a sudden tubes had appeared in the pristine, white wilderness. Tubes everywhere! Baby blue plastic tubes, black plastic tubes, interlocking connectors, everything neatly wired into position at chest height and thoughtfully out of the way of any skiers enjoying the woods.

Processing the sap here at home is done quite differently from those commercial operations. Our low-tech approach was to merely add each day’s “catch” from the four buckets to a big stock pot sitting on the woodstove. The woodstove is stoked pretty much continuously this time of year, so the sap was always evaporating, with the added bonus of humidifying the house.Boiling maple sap

I see a few eyebrows going up. Sticky walls and ceiling are what comes to some minds upon the mention of cooking down maple sap indoors. Well, that’s usually myth. Sticky walls and ceiling only result when the sap is in an active boil and bubbles bursting on the surface of the liquid sent little droplets of sugar water into the air and onto walls and ceilings. But until the final stage of our sap-making, the sap was just slowly evaporating. The vapor given off by slowly evaporating, simmering, or boiling a solution of any sugar and water is nothing more than water vapor. That’s why the maple sugar becomes concentrated in the remaining liquid.

In those final stages of concentration, with much reduced liquid volume, the liquid can indeed reach an active boil. The pot of liquid announces that it’s nearing that stage by starting to gurgle like a baby, at which point it needs to be watched closely, mostly so that the syrup doesn’t get too concentrated or burn. The finish point is when the temperature of the liquid reaches about 219 degrees F.

Another Maple, Not So Good

Someone contacted me to say that, “The squirrels were chewing on Norway maple tree last week and sap was seen dripping down,” then went on to ask if that meant it was too late to prune. Perhaps the squirrels were enjoying some of the sweet sap. Yes, you can tap and boil into syrup the sap of all kinds of maples; I’ve tapped and made syrup from silver maple, red maple, boxelder, and, of course, sugar maple.

Getting back the pruning… It’s not at all too late. It’s fine to “dormant” prune any plants up until the time when they unfurl their leaves in spring.

Another good question might be: Why not just cut the Norway maple down to the ground? The trees are invasive and displacing our sugar maples, they have poor fall color, and they create lugubrious shade beneath which grass and much else can’t grow. Mostly, people keep these trees because they are already in place and full grown.

Pea Planting, Almost

Despite snow covering the ground on the ground, I’m still planning to scratch open a furrow and plant peas – the first outdoor planting of the season – on April 1st.

Given the white blanket, which may not be around by the time you read these words, some people might think me crazed for planting peas so soon. Then again, those people who insist on getting their peas in the ground before St. Patrick’s Day might think I’m dragging my heals.Winter scene, N garden

Here are the facts: Peas grow best at cool temperatures, making early sowing a must. The seeds will sprout whenever the soil temperature is above 40 degrees F. But St. Patrick’s Day can’t be the universally best time to sow peas because different places experience different climates on that date. It’s probably too late in Florida, too early in Maine, and just right in Ireland.

So call me a fool if you like, but I’m still planning on an April Fools Day planting for my peas. I’ll wait a few more days if the ground is frozen or covered with snow. Just a few days though, because things move quickly this time of year.Winter scene, looking south

Shears Galore

For Those Smaller Cuts

What gardener doesn’t need to prune some thing at some time? In many cases, a thumbnail suffices, as when pinching out the growing tip of a marigold or basil plant to make it grow more bushy. Or pinching off the soft green tip of a young apple shoot to temporarily stall its growth and let the leader, destined (by you) to be the future trunk and main limb, to remain top dog. Your thumbnail, though, isn’t always sufficiently long to use as a pruning tool, or else stems have toughened up beyond your thumbnail’s capabilities.7 pruning shears

When more than your thumbnail is needed, there are many pruning tools from which to choose. If you’re going to own but one pruning tool, that tool should probably be a pair of hand shears, which are useful for cutting stems up to about 1/2” across.

As with everything these days from cold cereals to corn chips to soaps, a wide, confusing array confronts you whether in a catalog, the web, or a store shelf. Having written a book about all aspects of pruning, inc

Bypass blade (left) vs anvil blade (right)

Bypass blade (left) vs anvil blade (right)

luding the tools of the trade (The Pruning Book), I’ve been afforded the opportunity to try out a slew of pruning shears. Looking for a pair to buy? I’m going to make it easier for you

Okay, okay, personal taste does come into play here. That’s why the ideal is to be able to fondle a candidate before purchase or, even better, try it out. Still, some general design features are important to function.

The blades, for instance. Blade configurations fall into one of two categories: anvil and bypass (the latter sometimes called “scissors”). The business end of the anvil-type shears consists of a sharp blade that comes down on top of an opposing blade having a flat edge. The flat edge is made of plastic or a soft metal so as not to dull the sharp edge. Bypass pruners work more like scissors, with two sharpened blades sliding past each other.

Anvil shears generally are cheaper than bypass shears — and the price difference is reflected in the resulting cut! Unless the single, sharp blade is kept truly sharp, the anvil pruner will crush part of the stem. And if the two blades do not mate perfectly, the cut will be incomplete, leaving the two pieces of the stem attached by threads of tissue. That wide, flattened blade also makes it more difficult to get the tool right up against the base of the stem you want to remove.

The blades of some bypass shears are hooked at their ends to help prevent stems from slipping free of the jaws as you cut. Other shears achieve the same effect with a rolling action of one bypass blade along the other as the handle is squeezed.Beyond blade design, certain special features found on some pruning shears might appeal to you personally. Some shears are tailored to fit left hands or small hands, although on some of the latter the effect is achieved by merely shrinking the maximum blade opening when adjusted to the smaller hand size. 

To make it easier to slice through thick stems, some shears have a ratchet action; weigh the virtue of more power against the need for repeatedly squeezing the handles for each cut. Other shears (allegedly) ease hand strain by having models with hand grips that rotate as you make the cut and/or varying the angle of the blades in relation to the handles.

And My Favorite Pruning Shear Is . . .

I have a collection of pruning shears and they all hang on the wall near the back door. A good test of how I actually feel about a particular pruning shear is how frequently I grab it as I go out the door.

I have narrowed down my favorites to three, which are  . . . ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ drum roll. Well, it depends on what I’m pruning. If it’s just light pruning, I generally reach for my Pica shears, a model that should be better known. They’re light but sturdy, and their blades are hooked at their ends to (I guess) help prevent stems from slipping free of the jaws as you cut.

For the heaviest cuts I’d make with a hand shears, I reach for my Felco No. 7, universally recognized as great shears by those in the know. It has a nice feel, although a little topheavy, and the blades are of high quality steel and are replaceable, as are most parts.

My favorite all-around shear, the one I’d get if I could own only one shear (shudder the thought!), is my ARS VS-8 pruner.

ARS VS-8 hand shear

Not a catchy name, but a top notch pruner with good weight, good steel, replaceable parts, and — my favorite part — easily opened with just a firm squeeze of the handles.

So there they are, my recommendations. Consider these before making an impulse purchase for whatever shear happens to be staring you in the face.

Read the Book, Bro’

To Prune or Not To Prune, That is the . . .

So I visited my brother and his family for Thanksgiving. As usual, we walked around his yard to look at his plantings. As usual, he asked my advice, this time about pruning. (As usual, he didn’t want to consult a copy of my book, The Pruning Book, which I had given him a few years ago. “Why read it, when I can just ask you?!” he says.)My brother's mystery shrub

He was considering taking blades to a row of handsome, evergreen shrubs along the front of his house. Over the years, the lengthening branches had sprawled out to encroach upon the bordering lawn, in some places leaving exposed bare stems. He questioned whether new growth would sprout if he lopped all those sprawling stems back to near the roots.Close up of mystery shrub stems

But what was the plant? I had an excuse, admittedly rather lame, for not knowing it: I learned all my ornamentals in Wisconsin where not many broadleaf evergreens are hardy. No matter. Sometimes you can figure out how to prune an unknown plant by just studying its growth habit.

Many evergreens, including most pines, Douglas firs, rosemary, and some rhododendrons, will not sprout new growth if cut back to bare old wood. (At the other extreme are boxwoods and yews, which sprout all over the place no matter how they are cut back.)

I suggested going ahead with drastic pruning of the unknown shrub. My confidence came from seeing many young sprouts emerging from the old stems right near where they emerged from the ground and then bent over from their own weight. Hormones within plants promote sprouting of vigorous, new shoots near the high point of a stem wherever it bends over. Pruning a stem back likewise promotes sprouting right near the cut.

I Pass Judgement

Looking across the front path, bro’ next asked me how I liked the pruning job he’d done on his rhododendrons. Hmmm, pretty good.My brother's pruned rhododendron

As often happens with rhododendrons, they are planted near a home and then too often grow so large as to swallow up windows, even the whole side of the home. His had done so, and he had pruned stems back to the height he wanted.

Two problems with this pruning. First, as noted above, when a stem is pruned back, most regrowth, and the most vigorous regrowth, occurs just below the cut. So although he cut the plant down to size, he should expect it to start growing back up to its previous size quickly.

The other problem with this pruning is that it leaves the plant looking butchered, large wounds gaping out atop thick stems whose upward mobility has been abruptly stopped. The best pruning jobs are ones where a plant looks nice without looking as if it has even been pruned.

My approach would have been to make a few cuts of the largest stems down in the interior of the shrub, where the stems originated. The largest stems would also be the tallest ones, so such cuts would be effective in lowering the plant. If too many need removal at once, the operation could be spread over 2 or 3 years. Then the pruning cuts would hardly be noticed, and letting light down low among the stems would promote healthy new growth starting low.

With all that said, my brother’s rhodies didn’t look too bad — and he has the opportunity over the next year or two to make my suggested cuts. Lucky for him, his rhodie was not one of the few that are reluctant to make new sprouts in lopped back older wood.

Moving On

Once I get started pruning, it’s sometimes hard to stop. As I looked at his yew shrubs along another part of his house, I suggested paring down the size of that rectangular block of greenery.My brother's yew hedge

Pruning yew is easy. Since it resprouts up and down stems no matter how severely it’s cut, you can do almost anything to it. His large hedge could even be cut down to stumps to begin life anew — quickly, because it has an established root system.

Most important when reducing the size of the hedge, no matter how it’s cut, is to reduce the whole hedge to a size smaller than finally desired. When maintenance trimming a shrub with hedge shears, trimming is generally further out from where the newest shoots began their growth for the season. That’s why hedges grow larger over time, unless they’re periodically lopped back more drastically, which doesn’t leave them looking that good until those cuts are covered by new growth.

And the Mystery Shrub is  . . . ?

I don’t feel so at a loss at not being able to identify my brother’s mystery shrub: I sent a photo of it to a few experts, none of whom could identify it.

Future Tense, Present Tense

Past is Present . . . No! . . . Present is Future

Gardening is so much about planning for the future. Dropping seemingly dead, brown specks into a seed flat in spring in anticipation of juicy, red tomatoes in summer is fun and exciting.

But now, in the glory of summer, I don’t particularly like planning, which means thinking forward to the crisp days of autumn that lie ahead. But I must. I know that when that time finally comes, I’ll have had my fill of hot weather. And the cooler weather coupled with shorter days and low-hanging sun will have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and other summer vegetables on the wane. Planning and action now let me have a whole other garden come autumn, a garden notable for its shades of green (from leaves) rather than the reds and yellows (from fruits) of summer’s garden.

I’ll need plants and free space ready for my autumn garden. Some plants are already in place: One bed has been home, since early spring, to kale, which keeps growing as we harvest leaves through spring and summer, and brussels sprouts, from which harvest won’t even begin until early October.

Cabbage plants sown in seed flats in early June are about ready to plant now out in the garden for autumn harvest. Today I sprinkled seeds of endive into mini-furrows in potting soil in a seed flat.Seed flats The endive seedlings will be ready to move out into the garden in 5 or 6 weeks. I’ve also sown more kale seeds to supplement the spring kale for harvest into and perhaps through (depending on the weather) winter.

Early August will be a good time, around here, for planting Watermelon — the Watermelon variety of winter radish, whose innards look like cut watermelon but taste very radish-y. Also turnips, the delicious variety Hakurei.

I’m also sowing lettuce seeds, which I’ve been doing since spring and continue to do every few weeks. They also go into seed flats, ‘GrowEase’ seed starters, from which I can pop out transplants into any spaces that open up here and there around the garden.

Looking for an Opening

So where am I going to plant all those endives, cabbages, winter radishes, and turnips? The autumn garden will also need room for direct sowings of quickly maturing autumn vegetables like arugula, mustard, and lesser known salad “greens” like mâche (corn salad), erba stella (minutina), and claytonia (miner’s lettuce). The garden is packed full of plants now.

Endive, radish, radicchio in fall

Endive, radish, radicchio in fall

Going into August, space will open up for those autumn garden plants. From my first planting in mid-May, I’ll pick the last ripe ear of Golden Bantam sweet corn around mid-August, then have a whole bed available as soon as I clear away the spent stalks. Similarly for the beds of onions, early bush beans, and edamame.

Black Raspberries (Blackcaps) Redux

Enough planning for autumn and beyond. I’m going outside to feast on blueberries, black raspberries, and gooseberries, for me the essence of summer.Black raspberry

Now that I think of it, as soon as the black raspberries finish up, which is very soon, I do have to plan for them also, for late summer and autumn. The varieties I grow — Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure — are unique in being two-crop black raspberries, just like my “fall-bearing” (“everbearing”) raspberries. That is, they bear in early summer on stems that grew last year, just like conventional black raspberries. But — and here is where they are unique — they also bear in late summer and autumn beginning at the tips of new stems that rose from ground level this spring.

Last year’s stems are just finishing fruiting, after which they begin to die. I’ll cut them away to make room for the new stems and to keep the late summer and autumn harvest from these new stems from becoming a thorny nightmare.Black raspberry fruit

Doing Good with Saw and Lopper

Fruitful Pruning

To begin, I gave the bush in front of me a once over, eyeing it from top to bottom and assuring it that the next few minutes would be all to its good. It was time for my blueberries’ annual pruning, the goals of which were to keep them youthful (the stems, at least), fecund, and healthy.

Blueberries galore

Blueberries galore

I peered in at the base of the plant, eyeing now the thickest stems. Blueberry bushes bear best on stems up to 6 years old, so the next move was to lop or saw any of these stems — usually only 3 or 4 of them, more on a neglected plant — as low as possible.

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

Sammy & me, pruning blueberries

To keep track of the ages of individual stems, I mark off the age of them each year with a Sharpie. Just kidding! The thickest ones are the oldest ones, and 6-year-old stems are generally an inch or more in diameter on healthy bushes.

Removing those stems that are over the hill frees up space for younger stems to develop. Each year blueberry bushes send up new sprouts from ground level, usually a few too many of them. They need to be thinned out so they don’t crowd each other as they age. I leave a half dozen or so of the most vigorous new sprouts, lopping all others to the ground.

That’s pretty much all there is to pruning a blueberry bush. With the very oldest and some of the very youngest stems cut to the ground, the bulk of pruning the bush is finished.

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

Blueberry bush, before & after pruning

  I’ll also snip off any dead stems, remove a branch here and there where they are congested, and shorten any stems that will arch to the ground when laden with fruit.

That’s it. Finished, except to step back and admire my handiwork.

And Now, For Other Shrubs

The same pruning done on blueberry could, in essence, be applied to lilac,Lilac in flower forsythia, mockorange, hydrangea, and any other informal shrub. This technique is known as rejuvenation pruning because, over time, the above ground portion of the shrub is annually rejuvenated. In the case of blueberry, the roots live unfettered year after year but the bush never sports stems more than 6 years old. A perennially youthful blueberry bush can go on like this, bearing well, for decades like this.

Not all shrubs perform best on stems up to 6 years old. Some, such as kerria, snowberry, rambling roses, and summer-bearing raspberries perform best on 1-year-old stems. So every year those 1-year-old stems are lopped to the ground and the youngest stems are thinned out.

Some shrubs, such as butterfly bush, everbearing raspberries, and red twigged dogwood, perform best on new stems. In this case, the whole plant gets lopped to ground level each year. (Everbearing raspberries actually bear on both new stems and on 1-year-old stems, so could be pruned as in the previous paragraph. That takes more time but does yield a midsummer crop on the 1-year-old stems and a late summer and fall crop on the new stems.)

At the other end of the spectrum in shrub pruning are witch hazel, tree peonyTree peony blossoms, rose-of-sharon, climbing roses, and flowering quince. These shrubs are among those that perform well year after year on the same old, and always growing older, stems. They also grow few or no suckers each year. The upshot is that thesis shrubs are the easiest to prune: Don’t.

I detail the ages of stems that are “keepers” for every shrub, plus other details in pruning all kinds of plants, in my book The Pruning Book.

Getting Formal

All this pruning refers to informal shrubs. For formal shrubs, such as the privet hedge near one edge of my yard, I put aside the lopper, pruning shears, and pruning saw, and get out the hedge trimmer. Shearing all the youngest twigs, working, this time, higher in the bushes rather than down near ground level, elicits repeated branching which results in dense growth.

To keep this formal hedge clothed from head to toe in leaves, I keep the row of plants narrower towards their upper portions. This lets sunlight beam down on the shrubs from top to bottom.

This Bud’s for You


Swelling Buds

What an exciting time of year! After a spate of 50 plus degree temperatures, lawn grass — bare now although it could be buried a foot deep in snow by the time you read this — has turned a slightly more vibrant shade of green. Like a developing photographic film (remember film?), the balsam fir, arborvitae, and hemlock trees I’m looking at outside my window, have also greened up a bit more.

Going outside to peer more closely at trees and shrubs reveals the slightest swelling of their buds. Earlier in winter, no amount of warmth could have caused this. As a cold weather survival mechanism, hardy trees and shrubs are “smart” enough to know to stay dormant until warm weather signals that it’s safe for tender young sprouts and flowers to emerge.

These plants stay asleep until they’ve experienced a certain number of hours of cool temperatures, the amount varying with both the kind and variety of plant.

Once that cold “bank” has been filled, the plants merely respond to warming temperatures. Which, for many plants, is now.

Physiology aside, the buds provide an interesting winter diversion; look at their sizes, their shapes, their colors, and textures. (Admittedly, their interest would pale in the landscape exploding into flowers and leaves, when the buds anyway mostly disappear into flowers or leaves until later in summer when new ones re-form.)

More than just interest, buds are useful. Buds can be used to identify the kind of plant as well as whether flower buds are in the offing. Or perhaps that flower buds were in the offing but were damaged by winter cold.

Info from Buds

The first bit of information I glean from winter buds is plant identification. To begin, how are the buds arranged along the stem? Buds directly opposite each other, which is relatively rare for local trees, narrows the choice down to maple, ash, dogwood, and horse chestnut, or, as some people remember it, MAD Horse.

L to R: peach, pawpaw, fantail willow, viburnum, dogwood

L to R: peach, pawpaw, fantail willow, viburnum, dogwood

Of course, once I identify a tree as, for example, a maple, I have to look for other details, such as the bark, to tell if it is a red, sugar, silver, or Norway maple.

(A few less common trees also have opposite leaves, including katsura and paulownia, both non-native, and viburnums, some of which are native. Most shrubs have opposite leaves.)

Buds that are not opposite each other along a stem might be alternating along the stem, they might be whorled, or they might be almost, but not quite opposite, presenting a much wider field of plants from which to choose.

Then it’s time for a closer look at the buds themselves. Some plants—viburnums, for example—have naked buds, enveloped only by the first pair of (small) leaves, rather than the scaly covering protecting the buds of most other plants. Buds of plants such as maples have buds enclosed in scales that overlap like roof shingles. Or two or three scales might enclose a bud without any overlap, as they do on tuliptree.

Mature plants have two kinds of buds. Those that are longer and thinner will expand into shoots. Flower buds are usually fatter and rounder. I note how dogwood flower buds stand proud of the stems like buttons atop stalks — very decorative if you take the time to have a look. I take a look at a peach branch with its compound bud: a single, slim stem bud in escort between two fat flower buds.

Peach buds

Peach buds

Apple and crabapple flower buds occur mostly at the ends of stubby stems, called spurs, that elongate only a half an inch or so yearly. Pawpaws fruit buds are fat and round with a brown, velour, covering.

Practicalities aside, buds can predict what kind of flower show or fruit crop to expect, barring interference from late frosts, insects, diseases, birds, or squirrels. If peach fruit buds just sit in place rather than fattening as winter draws to a close, I’ll know that the night back in January when temperatures plummeted to minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit did them in, or at least some of them. 

More Winter Details

Back to winter plant identification and entertainment. Looking more carefully at these leafless plants promotes familiarity. Notice the intricacies of their various barks; shagboark hickory, sugar maple, persimmon, white birch, and, my favorite, hackberry,

Hackberry bark

Hackberry bark

are very characteristic. Note twigs’ color, presence of ridges or lenticels (corky pores), even their taste or aroma. The aromas of yellow birch (wintergreen aroma), sassafras, and black cherry (almond) practically shout out their identification.

The Best Winter Herbs

Mini-Trees for Flavor

Second best to fresh-picked vegetables in winter, which are not within most gardener’s grasp with temperatures in the single digits, are fresh-picked herbs. Fresh-picked herbs — indoors — in winter are within the grasp of most gardeners, even non-gardeners.

Flowering and fruiting demand lots of light energy, but it is the leaves of most herbs that provide us with flavoring, so most herbs do fine in any reasonably bright window. The same goes for normal household temperatures and humidity.

So make space near your windows for herb plants!

Let’s look below ground now. Any potting mix suitable for houseplants will also be to the liking of herb plants. The mix should hold some moisture between waterings while at the same time drain well so that roots, which need to breathe, don’t suffocate. My own mix, made  from equal parts compost, perlite, peat moss, and soil, provides air and moisture as well as nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that keep plants healthy. Soil dug from the garden and used straight up is never suitable; in the confines of a flowerpot, it holds too much moisture.

Now for the plants. Many people, perhaps most, choose basil as their number one herb to grow. Nix on that, indoors. Think of a Mediterranean summer with bright sunlight beaming down on warm soil. That’s what basil needs and what you can’t provide in winter except with supplemental light and, depending on your thermostat setting, supplemental heat. Not in my house.

I’d also suggest against parsley or chives. The problem is that neither grows fast enough to keep up with periodic clipping of the amounts normally harvested.

The best herbs for indoor growing are perennial, woody, subtropical plants. Before you bemoan my nixing of basil, chives, and parsley, consider these perennials: bay, rosemary, sage, and thyme. 

Small, indoor rosemary "tree"

Small, indoor rosemary “tree”

Bay, rosemary, sage, and thyme are also good choices for indoor growing because they do double duty: They’re pretty as well as flavorful, can stand repeated harvest, and live for years and years. My bay tree started life here as a small plant carried back in my backpack from California over 25 years ago. Fresh bay tastes quite different from the dried leaf, and much, much better. My rosemary plants are each a few years old and show no signs of decline.

Both bay and rosemary are happy to be trained as bushes, as topiaries, or as miniature trees. Mine are miniature trees, each plant with a short length of trunk capped by a mop head of leaves (and flowers, now, in the case of rosemary). Their training began early, when I selected a single vigorous shoot for each plant, staked it upright, and removed all other shoots. Once shoots achieved head-height (the height of THEIR proposed head, an artistic rather than horticultural decision), I pinched out their growing tips to induce side shoots to grow. I pinched the tips of side shoots to induce them, in turn, also to branch. All this pinching induced a dense mop head of stems and leaves atop each trunk. Small, lollipop trees.

Maintenance of the bay and rosemary is easy. Both are as large as I’d like them to be so every year or two, they get tipped out of their pots and and inch or two shaved off the outside of their root balls. After returning to their pots, potting soil gets packed into the space beyond the periphery of the root balls, giving new roots access to fresh soil and nutrients.

Their heads also get trimmed periodically to maintain their neat shape. The annual trimming provides a bumper harvest, but a few leaves or stems can be clipped for seasoning any time of year.

Bay laurel tree

Bay laurel

I’m not enough of a fan of sage or thyme to grow them through winter indoors. But sage could be grown as a small, decorative shrub, especially varieties such as Tricolor, with white-edged leaves, Purpurascens, with purplish leaves, or Aurea, with some gold in its leaves. Thyme, which comes in various colors and flavors (lemon or caraway, for example), is a subshrub, or ground cover. How about a thyme ground cover carpeting the ground at the feet of a potted miniature bay tree?

Ongoing care for any of these herbs is watering, which can spell the difference between success or failure. Neither rosemary, bay, sage, nor thyme readily show their thirst with wilting leaves. Years ago, as I brushed past the little rosemary tree I was growing at the time, all the leaves dropped off. The plant was dead.

The potting soil for any of these plants needs to be kept just moist. Scheduled watering won’t do because watering needs changes through the season with growing conditions. A $10 “moisture meter” is an easy way to tell whether a plant is thirsty, as is, with practice, lifting a pot to feel how heavy it is.

Carrying the Sky on Their Backs

I saw two bluebirds a few days ago, but am not ascribing any significance to the sighting. They’re just pretty.

Fruit, Again, With Nod To Michael Jackson

Blackcaps Redux, This Season

I took a cue from Michael Jackson today when pruning my black raspberry (a.k.a. blackcap) plants. Not that I had to prune them today, or even this time of year. But I couldn’t stand looking at the tangled mass of thorny canes. And, more importantly, the tangled mass would make harvest, slated to begin in a couple of weeks or so, a bloody nightmare.

(Most blackcaps bear only once a year, in early summer, so tidiness would be the main reason to prune conventional blackcaps now. Pruning would also let remaining canes bathe in more light and air, reducing the threat of diseases. My blackcap plants, though, are the two varieties — Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure — that bear twice a year; hence, my pruning now to make picking the soon-to-ripen second crop less intimidating.)

All blackcaps have perennial roots and biennial canes. Typically, the canes just grow their first year, flower and fruit their second year, then die. Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure differ in bearing on both one-year-old canes and on new canes. I picked the early summer crop from canes that grew last year. And now my mouth is watering as I look forward to the late summer crop, which will be borne on canes that just started growing this season.
Pruned blackcaps
Pruning is straightforward. I started by lopping right to ground level all the canes that bore the early summer crop; they’re dying anyway. Step two is reducing the number of new canes, selectively keeping the fattest and healthiest-looking ones, and lopping all others to ground level. Even then, I reduce their number to the best six of them. That’s it. Easy, as long as the thorns are avoided.

My blackcaps are in a row, three feet apart. An iron pipe sunk into the ground next to each plant provides support for each plant’s clump of stems. With pruning finished, I tied a piece of rope to the pipe and then around the clump of stems, a gloved hand cozying the thorny stems into position while my ungloved hand tied the rope, à la Michael Jackson.Tying blackcap with gloved hand

Rotten Plums

I wish that pruning was all that my plum trees needed. With this being such a good year for fruits generally, I was very hopeful for a good crop. And they looked fine up until a week ago, when the fruit started ripening — and rotting.

Brown rot is the culprit, mostly the handiwork of the fungus Monolinia fruticola. Characteristic powdery, gray masses of spores form on the surfaces of rotting fruits, which eventually dry to become “mummies.” Brown rot is not new to me; I’ve experienced it on peaches, nectarines, and plums in the past. It also attacks apricots, cherries, and other “stone fruits” (Prunus genus). Typically, a plant bears well for a couple of years while the fungi are building up, and then full-fledged, annual attacks begin.Brown rot

The usual recommendation to hold the fungus at bay is, first, to remove sources of inoculum by cleaning up all infected fruit in summer and mummies in winter, and pruning away dead, infected twigs. That’s quite a job on a big plum tree.

I sprayed my trees with sulfur many times this past spring. Sulfur is an organically approved fungicide, used by gardeners and farmers for thousands of years, that is effective against brown rot. But only for a few days. Hence my repeated sprays, evidently not repeated enough.

The easiest approach would be for me to grow brown rot resistant varieties.

Plumquest Begins

So now I am embarking on a plumquest, my search for plums that taste good and are resistant to brown rot. Resistant genes must lurk somewhere — actually right in my yard, on the wild plums. They hardly ever show fuzzy grayness; they also don’t taste very good.

I now remember a pertinent page I photocopied many years ago. Shuffling through piles of papers on my desk, I come across the page, from a scientific-looking paper, entitled “Range of known genetic traits in Plum cultivars.” That’s a start, and the list on the page includes one of my favorite plums, the Green Gage, also known as Reine Claude Verte, as resistant. Shiro, which I grow with some success, is only listed as “tolerant.”

My next queststep is on the web, bringing me to a publication entitled “The Cultivated Native Plums and Cherries,” authored by Liberty Hyde Bailey in 1892. I immediately ordered a reprint to make it easier to sort through the many varieties and their gustatory and pest potentials.

Once suitable varieties are identified, the next queststep is to locate trees or, more likely, stems for grafting, to bring here to the farmden. I will report on my plumquest as events unfold.


Blackcaps All Season (Almost)

It’s a bumper year for blackcaps (also know as black raspberries or, botanically, Rubus occidentalis), at least here on the farmden. Up to last year, we harvested wild blackcaps from plants that pop up at the edges of woods. The current bountiful harvest is from blackcaps that I planted a couple of years ago. Last year’s harvest was unimpressive because the plants were still settling into their new home.Black raspberry fruit

Most blackcaps, like many other bramble fruits, have biennial canes that grow stems and leaves their first year, fruit in early summer of their second year, then die back to the ground. (Annual harvests are possible because while those second year canes are fruiting and then dying, the perennial roots are pushing up new canes, which will bear the following year.)

Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure, the two varieties I planted, stand out from the crowd in bearing on new, growing canes as well as on two-year-old canes. Their two-year-old canes, like those of run-of-the-mill blackcaps, bear now, in early summer. Berries are borne on new, growing canes towards the end of the growing season, until stopped by cold. The next season’s summer crop is borne lower down on those same canes. The upshot of all this is that I get to eat fresh blackcaps in early summer and then again in late summer.

I knew I could expect two crops each season from these varieties when I planted them. That’s why I planted them. What I didn’t know is how abundant and flavorful the berries would be. Unfortunately, for the purposes of evaluation, the two varieties are growing in separate locations that differ markedly from each other. The one in the better location — a humus-rich soil basking in abundant sunlight — yields oodles of large berries. The other variety — planted in a weedy bed shaded from the east by a greenhouse wall — yields less and smaller berries, with perhaps a tad better flavor.

Pruning Recipes

Pruning Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure is as important for ease of picking and pest control as it is for other brambles. And it’s easy.

Right after the current crop grinds to a halt, I’ll cut every cane that bore fruit right to the ground. These two-year-old canes are going to be starting to die anyway. I could cut them down in winter, but cutting them sooner gets the thorny canes out of the way of late summer harvest.Blackcaps on plant

All summer long, I’ll also pinch out the growing tip of any new canes when they reach about four feet in height. Pinching induces side shoots, on which fruits are borne.

That’s it for summer pruning. Sometime next winter I’ll reduce each clump of canes to the six healthiest and shorten each side shoot on remaining canes to about 18 inches long.

All in all, Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure yield a lot of delicious fruit over a long period of time for minimal effort. Now, if only the canes were thornless.

And More Pruning

Whoa, I can’t yet put away the pruning shears. I need the shears for some rose bushes. With the rose “crop” subsided, pruning will get varieties that bear only in June ready for next season, and those that bear again and again through summer to bear again and again.

For roses that bear only once each season, such as the heavenly scented Rose D’Ipsahan, or the cheery, lemon-colored blossoming Father Hugo’s Rose, I cut back some very old stems right to or near ground level, and shorten the remaining stems, some by a quarter of their length, others by three quarters of their length. Then I go over the bush to thin out any crowded stems. This pruning makes room for and stimulates growth of new shoots with ample time for them to initiate flower buds this summer that will unfold next spring.

Repeat blooming roses get pruned differently. The goal is to cut off stems with spent flowers and coax new growth that will flower this season. Instructions for pruning hybrid tea roses are very specific; and I quote: “. . . . cut the stem back to a five-leaflet leaf. Retain at least two five-leaflet leaves on each shoot.”

I don’t grow hybrid teas, which generally are finicky roses, preferring tougher roses such as some of the David Austin varieties, such as L. D. Braithewaite

Braithewaite rose

Braithewaite rose

and Charlotte. Pruning is very simple. I just lop stems or groups of stems laden with spent blossoms as far back as I feel like to keep the shrubs from growing too large. They both get another pruning in late winter.
Rugosa rose blossomAnother rose I grow, rugosa rose, won’t get any pruning this summer. Besides its nonstop, fragrant flowers, rugosa rose also bears nice hips, that is, fruits. The hips make excellent jam and are rich in vitamin C. Pruning in summer would remove spent flowers which then couldn’t go on to swell into fat hips.Rugosa rose hips