Friday, December 13, 2013
By TOM ATWELL
It started with James MacFarlane. He was homeless, having outgrown his space at a friend's house. We found a new spot at the edge of our property, on the western edge of our vegetable garden. Although we sort of ignored him, he thrived.
James is a lilac, specifically a Preston lilac, with wonderfully fragrant pink blossoms that show up about a week after the common lilacs bloom.
Over the years, James gained some friends -- a couple of taxus, some peach trees, other lilacs, rugosa roses, quince, balsam firs that had once been living Christmas trees, snowball viburnums that we thought had been killed by the viburnum leaf beetle, and even a burning bush that I thought I had eradicated.
The result is a mixed border that serves as visual block from the neighbors on that side, although that was not the intent. We were just finding homes for plants.
But the border developed some problems. James had a lot of dead stalks. All of the plants were spreading, eating away at the space that we have for growing vegetables. The plants were even encroaching on the asparagus and raspberries we love so much. It was time to prune.
While the hedge started with James, so did the pruning.
I prune the lilacs every year right after they bloom, cutting the biggest and oldest stems right down to the ground to give room for some new, vigorous shoots. I think I probably removed three living stems and quite a few dead twigs from James MacFarlane.
A few weeks later, Nancy said, "I think James needs some pruning." When I told her I had pruned James, she said he needed to be pruned more. As did everything else in that area.
She was right. The area had become overgrown, and the plants were fighting with each other. Because the change was gradual, I hadn't really noticed.
Many gardeners are intimidated by pruning. Several new pruning books are published annually, trying to help gardeners overcome their fear. But it really is quite easy.
If you have lilacs, start with them. Old lilacs are the easiest of all shrubs to prune, because you cannot kill them. If you cut a lilac entirely right down to the ground, the roots will sprout new shoots the next year, creating an entirely new plant.
In all pruning, you first cut out all dead and damaged branches.
Next, with lilacs, you cut out the biggest, oldest shoots right down to the ground. Cut as many as you want. With James, I cut the 14 largest stems and left about 12 smaller stems along with a bunch of small suckers, which will be the new growth.
After you cut the big branches, you can use hand pruners to cut back anything you don't like the looks of -- making sure to cut at a spot where a branch forks.
The quince lost probably two-thirds of its stems right down to the ground. Quince has not been declared invasive because it doesn't spread much by seed, but it is a bully to its close neighbors, and has to be put in its place.
The viburnums will also take tough treatment. Back when the viburnum leaf beetle first hit southern Maine, I thought they had died, and cut them right back to the ground. A year or two later, I was surprised that they had regrown. This year, we had no VLB problems at all.
Some shrubs needed gentler treatment, such as rhododendrons. They can get huge, but their branches do not intermingle as much as lilacs and viburnums. If you cut out a branch all the way to the ground, you can end up with an ugly void in the plant.
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