Pruning 101: The basics for success

This is a great time of year to prune most deciduous trees and shrubs so let’s cover some tips and techniques.

What is pruning? Pure and simple, it’s removing the undesirable parts of plants.  

Good pruning improves plant health. It gets rid of dead and diseased parts and improves air circulation, shape, and appearance. It can also restrict growth, stimulate flowering and fruiting, and rejuvenate older plants.  

February to early March is the ideal time to prune many trees and shrubs because they are dormant. The cuts you make will add vigor without trauma. 

You need only a few tools. Start with hand pruners to clip small twigs and branches. Add a pair of loppers to cut larger branches. For tight spots, it’s hard to beat a folding pruning saw.

No matter what tools you choose, keep them sharp and clean.

Leave to the pros – licensed tree experts or certified arborists – the pruning of large trees or work that involves climbing or cutting near power lines.   

Good pruning cuts are smooth with no ragged edges. They’re made at an angle about 1/8 to ¼-inch beyond a bud or connecting branch, so that water runs away from the cut.  

Don’t use pruning sealants which encourage disease and slow healing. Clean cuts heal themselves.

Never remove more than a third of a tree or shrub in any one year. Tackle neglected plants over several years to bring them up to snuff.  

Now you’re ready to start pruning.  

First, picture the ideal shape of your tree. You generally want a strong central leader and branches that go up and out. Keep that picture in mind as you prune. 

Next, ask yourself some questions to guide your pruning cuts.

Are there any dead or broken branches? Remove them. 

Do any branches cross? Get rid of one of the crossing branches to avoid damage from rubbing.

Are there areas where many branches are close together? Thin some out to improve air circulation and discourage disease. 

Are some branches distorted, malformed, or growing toward the trunk? Get them gone. 

Are skinny branches growing straight up from the main branches? Snip off these water sprouts.

Are branches growing from the base of the tree? Cut off these suckers. 

Do some branches have tight, narrow connections to the trunk? Remove some. Strong branches come out at wide angles and resist breakage.

Remove branches with narrow crotches (left) to lessen the chance of breakage. Photo: University of Maryland Extension 

Stop, stand back, and look at your tree or shrub often as you prune. Armed with all sorts of cutting tools, it’s easy to get carried away. And yes, I know this from experience.

Does every tree or shrub need to be pruned? No. Do most benefit from it? Yes. Are there different pruning styles for different types of plants? Yes. Fruit trees, grapevines, flowering shrubs, and evergreens all have unique needs. 

Your best pruning tool is a good book or reference sheet like this one: Pruning Trees in the Home Landscape

Don’t let pruning intimidate you. Do your research. Arm yourself with good tools. Take your time. And step back often to evaluate what you’ve done. Before you know it, you’ll be a pruning pro. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Fruit in your future? Start with small fruits, not tree fruits

Small fruits give you lots to eat,
Tree fruits often spell defeat.

I am 100% pro-fruit! I would love to see more fruit plants of all types grown across Maryland. But it saddens me to see gardeners become frustrated and disenchanted with fruit growing because their first attempt was with apples or peaches.

A National Gardening Association survey showed that 41% of U.S. households grew edibles in 2021, a 24% increase since the start of the COVID pandemic. Many new vegetable gardeners naturally see fruits as their “next frontier.” Most vegetable crops are annual plants while all fruit plants are perennials, living year-to-year in the same garden space for years and requiring year-round attention. You need to up your game for fruit growing.

My advice for the fruit-curious gardener is to start off with some of the small fruits that are well-adapted to Maryland’s climate and soils. Strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, grape, and currants get their generic “small fruits” name because the plants and their fruits are small relative to tree fruits. Apple, European pear, peach, cherry, plum, and apricot are all popular tree fruits in the Rosaceae (rose) family. They also grow well in Maryland and many people plant or inherit them without fully understanding their requirements and challenges. As a result, we get a ton of tree fruit problem questions every growing season through Ask Extension.

If you had your heart set on planting apple and peach trees this year, please put down the mail-order catalog or close the browser window showing an everyday gardener picking bushels of fruit from a pristine apple tree and consider this:

  • Small fruits are less expensive to buy and maintain and take up less garden space. Even dwarf apple fruit trees can take up 75 sq. ft. of space. 
  • Small fruit plants are easier to incorporate into a home landscape. They are also easier to prune and manage and to remove if they don’t work out or eventually succumb to old age or disease. (Mature grape plants with their massive root systems are the exception). Removal of a fruit tree can be costly.
  • It’s easy to overcrowd a part of your yard with fruit trees by planting them too close to each other, to structures, or to other trees in the landscape. Shading leads to poor growth, pest and disease issues, and low yields.
  • Fruit trees need to be trained and pruned in a careful and timely manner, especially in the first 3-4 years. Small fruits tend to be more forgiving regarding training and pruning. 
  • Yes, small fruits have plenty of potential pests and diseases but they can be grown organically with very good success. Some problems can be tolerated, like the fuzzy gray mold fungus that attacks strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry fruits in wet weather. Others can be prevented or managed through good gardening practices (like proper spacing and pruning) or applying an organic pesticide (like spraying lime sulfur in early spring to reduce disease pressure).
  • Tree fruits, conversely, have more insect pests and diseases that are more difficult to prevent and manage without synthetic pesticides. Trees must be monitored more closely for signs and symptoms of problems. Even if you spray effective pesticides at the correct time, you can end up with poor control if your sprayer is not capable of covering the entire tree including the tops and bottoms of the leaves. Multiple applications are usually needed to control the major pests and diseases.
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Thinking about getting honeybees? Some food for thought

With the huge losses of biodiversity that we are seeing across the world, a prominent example that became very close to people’s hearts is that of the large pollinator losses and the very important consequences that they could have on the well-being of our ecosystems and ourselves. In this context, a very large movement started seeking to “save the bees,” which has had a number of expected and unexpected consequences. One of the latter is the very significant increase in the adoption of honeybee hives by homeowners with little to no experience in honeybee husbandry, especially with the goal to “help bees” so they won’t go extinct. Although the goal of doing this is very genuine and well-intentioned, there are a number of complexities that come with this decision, which I would like to talk about in this post.

Are the bees dying?

The short answer is yes… kind of. Let me explain. As we mentioned in previous posts, there exists a very large diversity of bees (for example, only in Maryland there are about 400 native bee species!), and it is very clear that trends in biodiversity are negative for bees, as for many other groups of insects, plants and other animals. From that respect, we can say that many native bees are indeed dying, and it is key that actions are taken to provide more healthy habitat for them to survive.

That said, it is important to understand that honeybees are actually non-native livestock in our region (the group of bees that honeybees belong to are native to Eurasia and Africa, not to North America). Honeybees are managed and non-native insects that are reared by beekeepers to produce honey and other materials (e.g., wax, propolis). In places where honeybees are native, local peoples have been using their materials for generations, and in those regions, honeybees have not only been important from a production perspective, but also from a cultural one (read here to learn a bit more about some of these traditional systems).

As for all livestock, honeybees have health issues that need to be treated if they occur. For example, honeybees suffer from serious parasite and viral infections, appear to be negatively affected by certain pesticides applied to the plants they collect pollen and nectar from, and seem to also be affected by environmental stressors such as changes in the diversity of the landscape and the quality of the plants they feed on. All of this increases the real potential to reduce the health of colonies and, if left untreated, decimate them.

bee on orange milkweed flowers
Photo: M. LaBar (CC).
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January is for garden planning

I spent the early days of January 2023 thinking about the vegetable garden I won’t be planting until March. I’ve ordered my seeds, and I’ve gone so far as considering drawing a map of what goes where. (I may not get beyond considering, though it would be smart if I did—see below—but planning in two dimensions is always hard for me, and I’m pretty good at knowing how much I can grow in my 400 square feet, just not necessarily where exactly it’s going to go.) There is absolutely no need to start all this quite so early, but I like knowing that the seeds I want won’t run out before I get to them, and I had the time and enthusiasm, so there we are.

Since I don’t have room to grow everything I might want to, I have to make some choices. When I was a newbie gardener, I always bought too many seeds, and… okay, I still buy too many seeds, but at least I have a method now! So I thought I’d share it in case it’s of help to anyone.

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On The Garden Thyme Podcast: Winter garden chores & holiday tree tips

It is almost 2023, but you can still do some chores in your garden this year. In this episode of The Garden Thyme Podcast, we talk about the winter garden chores Rachel has been doing, and Mikaela and Emily have been putting off. We also talk holiday plant care (16:00), including caring for living trees (19:00) and fresh-cut trees (28:10).  

S03:E11 Winter Garden Chores and Holiday Tree Tips The Garden Thyme Podcast

Link to our survey: go.umd.edu/gardenthyme

The effect of Christmas lights on trees: NPR Science Friday. 

Thank you all for listening. See you next year! 

– Mikaela, Rachel & Emily 

If you have any garden-related questions, please email us at UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook. For more information about topics covered in the podcast, please check out the UME Home and Garden Information Center.

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

Holiday gift ideas for gardeners

branch of a fir tree with holiday lights in the background

Can you hear them? Tiny little elves are softly singing carols. The holidays must be around the corner.

If you’re scratching your head for gift ideas for the gardeners in your life, the Master Gardeners and I can help. Here are a few suggestions to make smiles wider and green thumbs greener.

Tools are cool. Yes, we say we really don’t need yet another tool. We lie. Our eyes light up at the flash of steel and the smoothness of a wooden handle. 

A Hori Hori soil knife – a multipurpose tool with a serrated edge and slight curve that digs, plants, cuts, weeds, and more – is a perennial favorite.

hori hori sitting on garden soil next to planted garlic
Used here to plant garlic, a Hori Hori knife also digs, cuts, weeds, and more.

Folding saws are a marvel for pruning in tight spots. Garden kneelers let you work sitting or kneeling with grips to give you a boost in getting up. If you’re over 50, you get it.

We gardeners are always looking for our next favorite garden glove. I have two: a waterproof glove and a sturdy but breathable pair with cushioned fingertips and palms.  

red garden gloves
A good pair of gloves is an indispensable gardening tool and a fine holiday gift idea.  

Gardeners love books. Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope and Bringing Nature Home top many Master Gardeners’ wish lists as do other conservation-minded books.

Magazine subscriptions make fine gifts, too. How about Horticulture, Fine Gardening or Birds & Blooms? 

I treasure handmade gifts, both to give and receive. Gifts from the garden – such as pesto, jam, and herbal liqueurs – are especially welcome.  

If you’re crafty, sew a garden apron, paint garden markers or make a hypertufa pot. If bigger is better, make a birdhouse, potting bench, or trellis. 

Good things also come in small packages. Seeds make great gifts.

Botanical Interests offers blends for butterflies, pollinators, and more in beautiful, informative seed packets. The Hudson Valley Seed Company sells heirloom seeds in incredibly artful packets. 

Bundle small gifts into a pot or gift basket. One Master Gardener fondly remembers an upcycled vintage bushel basket filled with bulbs, a bulb planter, and handmade plant markers.

Still stumped? How about a gardening calendar for year-round enjoyment or a garden-themed jigsaw puzzle that keeps twitchy gardening fingers busy in the winter months? 

You can’t go wrong with a gift card to a favorite garden center or online store. I used to disdain gift cards, but now embrace them because the recipient can get just what they want and need.

Always welcome is the gift of time. Why not give a busy gardener a coupon good for a few hours of planting, weeding, watering, or tending? For many of us that is the best gift of all.

Among my many gifts are my Master Gardeners. Thanks to Master Gardeners Lori, Ann, Will, Chanelle, Marcia, Dusty, Michelle, Susan, Catherine, Karen, Judy, and Sharon for their suggestions for this column. 

We hope we’ve given you some ideas to jump-start your holiday gift-giving. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Trees & shrubs for pollinators

For some reason, I feel that every time I think about what to plant for pollinators, the list of plants that comes to me is one full of herbaceous ones… however, it is odd that this is the case, because it’s not like our region lacks larger plants (e.g., trees, large shrubs) that are both fully able to support pollinators while also supporting other biodiversity and even contributing to flood and rain management! And because if we’re interested in going the large(r)-plant path, we need a bit of planning, in today’s post I would like to present some native shrubs and trees that are great resources for our pollinators. This way, you can start planning where to get them for planting in late winter to early spring.

Why consider trees and shrubs for pollinators?

Large perennial plants such as trees and shrubs have many characteristics that make them very attractive to any pollinator-friendly person in our region. Indeed, while there are many of these plants that act as wonderful food resources for many pollinators (both adult and larval stages), these larger plants represent long(er)-term and abundant resources that can serve different aspects of our ecosystem: they provide shelter and food for birds, they can assist in managing stormwater runoff, retain soil, reduce surface temperatures by their shading abilities, and provide structural complexity to our landscapes. Trees especially are a key component of creating climate-resilient landscapes. In fact, one of Maryland’s climate change mitigation goals is to grow 5 million more trees by 2031!

Planting trees is not necessarily expensive

From a financial perspective, although these plants may be costlier to obtain than the smaller herbaceous ones, there is a multitude of incentives, state vouchers, and programs that strongly reduce or sometimes completely cover the costs of obtaining them. In Maryland, for example, the state provides incentives through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (discounts to be used at nurseries; all details here), the PG County Rain Check program or the TreeMontgomery program, city incentives, and free tree plantings (e.g., see College Park’s here). In all of these programs, a lot of trees native to our region are covered. If you would like to participate in any of these programs, make sure to check the specific tree lists covered by each (also, see this list of recommended native trees for the state of Maryland). Note that these programs I mentioned here are just a few of the many that exist; if you’re interested in this, make sure to check your city, county, and state resources!

What to plant?

I hope by now I have at least made you curious about the idea of choosing trees and shrubs for pollinators. Below, I made a very small selection of a couple of plants that appear in the native lists, and that are great for pollinators. Let’s take a look at them.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Tulip trees are a great native plant that can serve as a great pollinator resource. This tree is in the same family as Magnolia trees. It can reach a large size and it displays stunning yellow and orange flowers. This tree grows fast and is large (considered the tallest native tree in the eastern USA, along with sweetgums), so it can be a good choice for large spaces where a canopy is wanted relatively quickly. The flowers produce a lot of nectar, which attracts a massive number of pollinators. This makes it kind of fun to stand under the tree on warmer days during the blooming time: the buzzing coming from the tree is pretty impressive. Here are some more details on the conditions preferred by this tree.

the yellow and orange flower of a tulip tree
Tulip trees are among the tallest trees in the eastern USA and have wonderful resources for pollinators that they carry in their stunning flowers. Photo: W. Cutler CC.

American linden or basswood (Tilia Americana)

This tree can reach relatively large sizes, and when it grows to full size it has a very rounded canopy. I personally love this tree, because of the fact that I feel it’s a “social” tree: one can sit with friends under its shade on hot summer days, and just enjoy the life it hosts and the cool breeze it forms under it. Once the season is coming to an end, this tree’s leaves turn a lovely yellow. The flowers of this tree are small and not very colorful, but they are extremely fragrant and full of nectar, which makes them a great magnet for pollinators. You can learn more about the requirements of this tree at Virginia Tech Dendrology.

white flowers blooming on American linden tree
The American linden has discrete flowers that are very attractive to pollinators. Photo: A. Zharkikh CC.

Hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum and C. viridis)

These are mid-size trees that also sustain a variety of fauna through their flowers, fruits, and bird nest-friendly thorny branches. Their flowers are white, have a typical Rose-family structure (like those of cherry trees), and are attractive to bees, syrphids, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Besides being great for fauna, the two species do well in urban environments, because they both tolerate a wide variety of conditions. Here at pollenlibrary.com and on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center website you can learn more about each of these species.

White flowers of a hawthorn tree in bloom
Hawthorns have lovely white flower clusters. Photo: F. D. Richards CC.

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

This small tree/tall shrub is a great addition to green spaces, and is ideal for hedgerows or just as a stand-alone plant. I am always surprised by the super cool shape of the flowers of this plant, which have very elongated petals that create long white fringes. These flowers attract bees and other pollinators, which come to collect some of the nectar that is produced. This plant is usually dioecious, meaning that one individual plant harbors either male or female flowers, but rarely both. This plant is ideal for areas that receive a lot of sun, because it is under those conditions that it will do best (although it can do fine in less-sunny areas as well). You can learn more about this plant by visiting this website.

white flowers of the fringe tree
The whimsical flowers of fringe trees are not just attractive to us, but also to many pollinators! Photo: 阿橋 HQ CC.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)

Although all of them can provide very good resources for pollinators, I picked this one to showcase because this species grows relatively fast and does not get too large. This is indeed a larger shrub that has beautiful white flowers, and later on, delicious small berries. Because of all this good stuff, the flowers are visited by many insects, and the fruits are favorites of birds (so you’ll have to win over them if you want to get at the fruits! 😉 ). Here and on the University of Maryland Extension website, you can learn a bit more about this cool plant.

Serviceberries make everybody happy: pollinators in the spring with their flowers, and birds and humans in the summer with their berries! Photo: Henna K. CC.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, 
extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!