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.

Sometimes you have to put up with some temporary ugliness to save the plant. I have been working on one very large rhododendron since spring 2011. The previous winter was cold and windy, and almost everything on this rhododendron that was above the snow line died back.

We cut all the dead stuff, and left the low growth — even though there was a void in the middle. This year, there has been new growth in the middle, so we cut back a lot of the widest, lower branches along the edges. Next year, I think you won’t be able to tell there was any damage.

With evergreens, you also have to worry about creating holes in the plant. With most junipers, you can cut the lowest branches — which have been shaded out and often have a lot of dead needles — right back to the center of the plant, and it is impossible to tell they have been pruned.

I can’t go over every type of plant, but here are some pruning tips:

Remove all dead and damaged branches first.

Pick the branches you think are a problem, and then cut them back as close to the ground or the plant’s main stem as possible.

If you are new to pruning, step back and look at the plant after each cut. It will keep you from pruning too much.

If in doubt, prune the branch in stages. You think that it should be cut back all of the way, but you aren’t sure. Just cut it back to the first fork. If you want to cut more, you can do it. It is a bit more work, but you can always cut more — you can’t put any of it back.

Have hand pruners, loppers and a pruning saw with you. I actually have large loppers and small loppers. Use the hand pruners and loppers if you can, because they are less likely to do damage to the branches you want to leave behind.

I like curved-blade, Japanese pruning saws that cut on the pull as well as the push. Some people prefer straight pruning saws. I use bow saws only on extra-large branches. I’ve given up on chainsaws. They scare me, and anyway, I can’t keep them running.

Pruning is not shearing. With pruning, you cut back branches that are damaged, go in the wrong direction or are too large. The plant keeps its natural shape.

Shearing is usually done with power hedge trimmers, although some people use weed-whackers and a few use old-fashioned shears. Shearing creates an artificial shape to the plant and promotes water spouts.

So, this is a good time for pruning. You have to prune only if you see problems with the plant. You can do it a little at a time.

And nature is kind. If you make a mistake, there is a very good chance that the plant will fix itself in a year or two.

THE GRANDMOTHER of all Maine garden tours is this Thursday.

This is the 65th year that the Camden Garden Club has held its House and Garden Tour. It runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. The theme is “Maine Cottages.” Tickets are $27.50, and can be purchased online at For more information, call 236-8690 or email [email protected]

LATE BLIGHT, a disease that can kill tomato and potato plants, has been found in Maine.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension at Highmoor Farm reported in a press release that the fungal disease has been found on tomato plants in Woolwich and on potato plants in central Maine.

“Conditions for the development of late blight have been very good in Maine, and growers should be on the alert to catch any early symptoms on their plants and be ready to apply appropriate control measures,” the press release said. “Typical symptoms will be water-soaked lesions on the leaves with fine, white cottony mycelium on the undersides. Infections on the stems appear as dark, almost black lesions.”

Gardeners are asked to report any symptoms to the Pest Management Office at 581-3883 or (800) 287-0279, or email [email protected] Samples can be sent to: Pest Management Office, 491 College Ave., Orono, ME 04473-0279.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]