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Pruning for Holiday Greens

One of the biggest bits of misinformation I always have to try and correct at this time of year comes packaged in the inevitable fall gardening story: "cleaning up your landscape for winter". Let me reveal what such articles SHOULD say:

• Yes, you should remove (or at least shred) any leaves that are smothering lawns and plants.

• And yes, you should remove (and compost) your pitiful dead tomato plants and such.

• But you should not "neaten things up" by pruning.

I realize that some of your plants are probably overgrown; and I'm equally certain that you have the odd shoot that looks like your boxwood is flipping somebody the bird. And now that the summer garden is done producing, bloom time is over, and the World Series is in the rearview mirror you bore easily. Add a beautiful sunny day in there and suddenly you find yourself in front of a plant, pruners in hand, ready to do what you will call 'straightening up' but the plant would call simple assault.

Pruning done outside of the dormant period will stimulate new growth. Simple physics really: You want the plant to stay small and cute, like your damaged memory thinks your children once were. The plant, however, wants to be as big as possible so that it can absorb the most solar energy and maybe get served in a bar.

Pruning stimulates growth.

Prune at the worst possible time of year (the Fall) and that new growth will be stimulated (at least for those of us in UDSA zone 8 and cooler) just as winter is coming around the corner. (In the higher numbered zones, the weather will be less treacherous.) That causes two bad things to happen. One: you are forcing the plant to grow while it's trying to go dormant. Energy that was being sent down to the roots is now being spent in the name of new growth. In a bad winter, that diversion alone could kill a plant that would have survived if left unmolested.

But wait--there's more! That new growth--full of fresh sap--will freeze solid on the first night afterwards that dips into the twenties, perhaps even bursting under the strain. (Your reaction? "Hey--that rose branch looks awful; I better prune it again".)

When should you prune? You can prune the branches of anything in the dead of winter. Fully dormant plants won't be stimulated. Don't hack anything back to the ground, however, or you'll expose the crown to severe winter injury. And you will ruin the show on spring bloomers by pruning in the winter. Azaleas, rhododendrons, flowering apples and cherries, lilacs, forsythia and the like should be pruned right after the flowers fade in the Spring. Summer bloomers like roses, butterfly bush, hardy hibiscus and crepe Myrtle should be pruned a couple of weeks after new growth appears in the Spring.

But Christmas is coming! And holly and evergreens from the landscape provide perfect 'live' decorations! Can't we use the plants in our yard?

Yes, you can, but you have to cheat. (And remember kids: Cheaters always win!)

Julia in Berwyn PA writes: "I have a Nellie Stevens holly that is 13 years old and has begun dying from the top down. It grew well and looked healthy; now it has brown leaves on the topmost branches. This summer it flowered well and is now loaded with berries, but it shows little new growth above about eight feet high. Can it be saved?"

Yes it can be saved, and it's going to give you lots of holly branches for holiday decorations this year. I was given a new cultivar of a 'blue holly' to test many years ago (by the way, it turns out the leaves are kind of blue; the berries are the standard red; and yes, I was disappointed). Anyway, it has grown and 'berried' well but has defied all attempts to make it look like it has a decent shape. It looks more like a badly broken umbrella somebody jammed into the ground, handle down.

Luckily (also many years ago), I had a guest on the show from one of the many Philadelphia-area arboretums who explained that it's not unusual for hollies to lose their shape or go brown up high--and the answer is highly aggressive pruning. My allegedly blue holly has a perfectly shaped baby holly growing out of a low side branch, and sometime during the first frigid week before Christmas, I am going to use a bow saw to take the broken umbrella part down.

I am assured that my 'Little Holly' will grow and flourish. My guest said they sometimes cut really ugly ones down to a stump and they regrow. They might not look great for a couple of years but will soon be a recognizable holly.

So remember Julie: "Fortune Favors the Bold!"

Oh--and evergreens! Wait for the coldest stretch of weather and then remove entire branches. Do not prune parts off of portions of branches. Removing entire branches has the lowest potential for stimulation of new growth.

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