TURNS OUT winter isn’t the excuse I’d hoped it would be to allow me to stow away my clippers, gloves and boots and stay indoors. “The traditional time to prune is when plants are dormant,” Cass Turnbull says. As founder of Plant Amnesty, an organization dedicated to skillful pruning, she should know. Turnbull has pruned trees and shrubs in public and private gardens around our city for decades.
So go ahead, fill a Thermos with steaming hot tea or coffee, boot up and head outside. Because pruning is a clean, dry chore, it’s a relatively pleasant way to connect with your garden even on dark, cold days. We’re often blessed with a few bright and maybe even warmish days in January. By mid-February, long before they actually leaf out, woody plants begin stirring back to life.
Now, when plants are as dormant as hibernating bears, is the ideal time to prune “bleeders.” In warmer seasons, birch, beech, dogwoods, maples, fruit trees and grape vines leak sap when you cut into them. But in winter you can achieve cuts into the soundly slumbering wood without worry of causing plants to drip sap and muck up your clippers.
Turnbull points out that a big benefit of winter pruning is that leaf drop clearly reveals the structure of a plant. You can be a more artful pruner when you can see what you’re doing. Go ahead and crawl underneath challenging-to-prune trees and shrubs such as weeping Japanese laceleaf maples or the convoluted Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) and clean out crossing or rubbing branches.
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Take advantage of the fact that we aren’t yet in the frenzy of spring chores. Weeding, planting, mulching and watering aren’t on your agenda for the time being. You aren’t yet pressed by tiny seedlings needing your attention, or containers begging for a dose of liquid feed. A great pleasure of winter pruning is taking your own sweet time, stepping back between cuts to carefully consider what comes next. Pruning is an art, and like any other, takes time and thought.
And it’s safer for the health of your garden to prune when pests and diseases are as dormant as the plants. There’s less chance of spreading these nasties when it’s so cold, especially if you prune when it’s not raining.
You’ll want to take a different approach to pruning broadleaf evergreens, such as rhododendrons, aucuba, hollies and camellia, this time of year. It’s best to thin them rather than to prune heavily. And be sure to bring those clippings indoors for bouquets. After all, when do we need a nature fix more than in the depths of winter?
So gently prune Viburnum x bodnantense, with its pink, fragrant flowers, and branches of Camellia sasanqua for its anemone-like flowers set against glossy, deep-green leaves. And don’t overlook all the handsome foliages persisting out there, like fronds of autumn fern, or evergreen magnolia leaves with their backing of furry, nut-brown indumentum. A big bunch of these leaves stuck in a metal or stoneware urn is a beautiful thing that stays fresh for weeks. Give yourself a dose of the outdoors by enjoying bits and pieces of the garden brought into the warmth and comfort of the house.
My take-away from my lively conversation with Cass is that just about any day is a good one for pruning. “People get in way more trouble pruning the wrong way than at the wrong time,” she concludes. “If you’re pruning selectively and in moderation, it’s OK to prune whenever the shears are sharp.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.