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.

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.

How to choose a real Christmas tree

I love Christmas.  My favorite part is decorating a real tree, bringing all that woodsy freshness and fragrance into my home.  If you like real trees too, listen up for some shopping tips.  

Christmas tree with decorations

First, measure.  If you’ve ever had to lop off the top to make it fit you know that eyes can deceive.  So measure the space and get a tree that fits both the height and width.  Yes, I’ve had to rearrange the furniture. 

Next, visit a local tree farm or lot.  Bundling up and strolling through a Christmas tree farm is old-fashioned fun.  Cutting your own guarantees it’s fresh.  Plus it’s a good excuse for hot cocoa.   

But before you head out to a tree farm, toss some sturdy rope and a blanket or tarp in your car to secure and protect your tree and car.  Most farms have maps, saws and helpful folks.  

Local tree lots are a fine option, too.  Most benefit a local business or nonprofit group so you’re doing good while having a good time.  Raise your hand if you get overwhelmed looking at all those trees. 

Should you get a spruce, fir, pine or cedar? It’s a tough choice, but here are some fast facts to help you.  

The longest-lasting trees are Colorado and Norway spruce and Frasier fir.  Concolor fir also last well and have a handsome blue tinge as do some Colorado spruce.

Balsam fir is the most fragrant.  Pines have long, soft needles. And local tradition points to our native Eastern redcedar, often harvested on farms in days gone by. 

Eastern red cedar with berries
Eastern redcedar
Credit: Mira Talabac

Once you’ve settled on a type of tree, get up close and personal. Stroke a branch from trunk to tip.  Few needles should fall.  Gently bend a few needles.  They should bend, not break.  

If you’re buying a pre-cut tree, give it the gentle drop test.  Lift the tree off the ground a few inches and let it hit the ground softly.  Only a few needles should fall.  

Tree farms and lots will offer to wrap your tree in netting.  Spring for the extra few bucks if there is a charge.  It’s good protection.   If you have a short trip home, ask for a fresh cut on the trunk of a pre-cut tree to help it take up water.  Or cut a half-inch off the base when you get home.  

Your tree will travel best in the cargo area of your car if it’s roomy enough. Put down a tarp or blanket to catch any falling needles. If your tree is traveling in the back of a truck, wrap it and secure it with rope to minimize shifting and damage.  The quaint image of a Christmas tree atop a car is all well and good, but trees should only travel on car roofs with roof racks to avoid damage.

Load your wrapped tree with the base forward and secure it with sturdy rope to avoid the unpleasant “opening umbrella effect” en route.  Yes, trees can fly.

As soon as you get home, plunge the tree into a bucket or stand that holds at least a gallon of water.  Trees are heavy drinkers, so check and top off the water daily.  Check twice the first day.

The right Christmas tree tended well can give you a month or more of enjoyment. Make yours the centerpiece of your family’s holiday celebrations. 

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.

Colorful shrubs jazz up the fall garden

Our landscapes are changing into their fall wardrobe which in many cases is brown, brown and more brown.  Add some pizzazz with shrubs with colorful leaves and berries.  As leaves lose their green chlorophyll, the underlying colors shine through in an autumn palette of red, gold, purple and orange.  Many shrubs reveal these vibrant leaf colors.

I’m a sucker for sumac.  Native varieties are already blazing red and orange along roadsides, but are often too big for the average backyard.  A better choice is a shorter cultivar such as the 3-foot ‘Gro-Low’ sumac. It’s a tough drought-resistant shrub that can handle poor soil. Its botanical name – Rhus aromatica – hints at another bonus: scented leaves.  

Fothergilla fall foliage – Image credit Miri Talabac

Also scented is native fothergilla.  Fragrant white bottlebrush blooms cover the plant in spring and in the fall it can wear red, yellow, orange and sometimes all of autumn’s colors combined.

Related to fothergilla is our native witch hazel.  Its leaves turn a sprightly yellow edged with orange in fall.  In winter it flaunts spidery yellow flowers.  Yes, it blooms in winter.

Oakleaf hydrangeas’ distinctive leaves deepen into a rich purple, red and bronze in autumn.  Their whopping blooms – like lilacs on steroids – tinge from white to mauve as they mature.

Love red?  Be kind to the environment and skip invasive burning bush which bullies out native plants.  Opt for a highbush blueberry instead which flashes the same rich red and provides food for both you and wildlife. Berries are berry – um, very – striking additions to the fall landscape.  Here are a few of my favorite berry-producing shrubs:

Viburnums are handsome, tough, pest-resistant shrubs whose praises I love to sing.  There are over 150 species and sizes run the gamut. Flower forms range from snowballs to flat-top clusters and many are fragrant.   Fall leaf colors range from rose to burgundy.  Then their berries take center stage in shades of yellow, orange, pink, red, blue and black.  Some even have two-tone berries.

I am not alone in my fondness for viburnum. Author and plantsman extraordinaire Michael Dirr says, “A garden without viburnum is akin to life without music and art.”   

The native American beautyberry stops traffic in the fall.  Somewhat nondescript much of the year, its cascading branches hold fistfuls of purple berries in autumn.  If you see it, you want it. 

Cotoneaster is another underused cascading shrub, this one dotted with red berries.  Pronounced cah-toe-knee-aster (no, not “cotton Easter,”) it looks especially fine draped over the top of a wall 

Red chokeberry – Image credit Miri Talabac

Native red chokeberry has dangling clusters of red fruits.  The ones in our demonstration garden get rave reviews when they are loaded with fruit or their abundant snowball-like spring flowers.  

Get thee to a nursery.  Enjoy a pleasant stroll while you search for just the right shrubs to enliven your fall landscape.

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.

Brighten your garden with fall-blooming perennials

Mum’s the word. Or is it?

Chrysanthemums are ubiquitous, popping up in gardens, on doorsteps, by mailboxes and storefronts, a sure sign of fall.  

I have a soft spot for the tumble of peach-toned blooms that are Sheffield mums. Naughty kids that bumble over other blooms in rowdy heaps, they are gorgeous and reliably hardy, unlike many other mums. But why limit yourself – and your garden – to mums? Many other perennials jazz up the fall garden, adding delicious colors, textures, and scents.

Aptly named by Carl Linnaeus after the Latin word for “star,” asters boast abundant daisy-like flowers in pink, purple, blue, or white. Ranging from one to six feet tall, they fit every garden. Two-foot ‘Purple Dome’ needs no staking, but taller varieties such as the striking native New England aster need support to avoid the dreaded flop. 

I have a thing for anemones. Their delicate flowers dance in the slightest breeze. Single or double blooms in white, pink, or lavender float on tall stems like leggy chorus girls. Also attractive are anemone’s seed heads: fluffy cotton balls sprinkled with seeds. Kids love to play with them. Me, too. 

Goldenrods stretch their arms through gardens in late summer and fall, adding a flash of gold. Tall airy types abound as do compact cultivars such as ‘Golden Fleece.’ Ten native goldenrods thrive here.

Scoliid wasp on chives

The garlic chives in our demonstration garden are going bonkers, their white pom-poms bustling with pollinators. A clump-forming perennial herb, its flowers and leaves are edible.

Garlic chives produce abundant seeds, so be ruthless in cutting off their flower heads before they go to seed. And yes, you can get your jollies by shouting, “Off with their heads!” My apologies to Lewis Carroll. 

Call them commoners, but native black-eyed Susans are tough broads that look good in fall. Their golden blooms surround a dark “eye” that fills with seeds to feed birds and other wildlife. 

Maryland’s state flowers, they are often marked “vigorous” on plant tags, meaning they tend to spread. So place them carefully with other robust plants or let them go unbridled in a wilder area.  

Leave black-eyed Susans’ stems standing to add winter interest. In fact, leave all of your perennials standing except those that had serious disease or insect issues or are spreading beyond reason.  

Why? Beneficial insects overwinter in their stems and under fallen leaves. Their seeds provide food for wildlife and their structure offers cover. So wait to cut perennials back until spring.  

Fall is here. I hope I’ve inspired you to look beyond mums to rev up the color, impact, and wildlife value of your fall garden.    

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.

How to adapt your garden to climate change

The news is filled with references to global warming and climate change. In fact, 99% of scientists agree that climate change is real with negative impacts on the environment, weather, human health, and agriculture. In Maryland, climate change is already causing higher average temperatures, more drought, longer heat waves, more intense storms, and flooding. 

So what can we do as gardeners to help the cause and help our gardens adapt to these changes?

Adopt sustainable practices. Environmentally smart practices build climate-resilient gardens and can slow future warming by reducing emissions and boosting carbon in soil and plants. Here are a few ways to get started:

Plant more trees

Trees filter air and water and are carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas. When placed well, trees can save up to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs.  

  • Plant deciduous trees on the west, east or southwest side of your home to block summer sun then let it in to warm your home in winter. Site evergreens to the northwest to buffer winter winds. 
  • Lean toward native trees. They’re well-adapted and need less water and fertilizer, the manufacture of which can contribute to greenhouse gases.  

Add or nurture native plants

Don’t stop with trees. Native shrubs, perennials, grasses, and groundcovers also help build a climate-resilient landscape. Native plants, once established, require less water and fertilizer, help store carbon, and reduce soil erosion. Since they co-evolved, native plants best support native pollinators and beneficial insects which provide chemical-free pest control. 

HGIC Website: Native Plants and Climate Change

Keep it diverse

Plant diversity also boosts resistance to pests and disease, so add many different types of plants to your gardens. Yes, more is better. 

Save the soil

Washington County Master Gardener Gary Stallings turns compost, a tool in building soil health and climate resilience

Great gardens grow from the ground up. So protect and improve your soil which stores massive amounts of carbon as carbon dioxide and organic matter.  

  • Keep soil covered since bare soil invites problems. Soil covered with plants, mulch, or cover crops best stores carbon, resists erosion, holds moisture, and has more even temperatures. 
  • Minimize soil disturbance from digging and tilling which speeds up the loss of organic matter and disturbs the soil community.  
  • Recycle nutrients by making and using compost. Compost adds organic matter, helps soil hold water and nutrients, and reduces the need for fertilizers. 

HGIC Website: Improve Soil Health for a Climate-Resilient Garden

Water wisely

  • Save water to make your garden more climate-resilient. Use a rain barrel or create a rain garden to capture and filter rainwater.  
  • Water when plants need it, not on a fixed schedule. And plant in the spring or fall when plants need less water to become established.

A few more tips:

  • Limit the emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases. Use gas-powered mowers, trimmers, and other equipment less and opt for alternatives. 
  • Shrink your lawn and replace it with groundcovers and other alternatives which need less water, mowing, herbicides, and fertilizer. When you do fertilize, do it based on a soil test to use only what you need. 
  • Help more by growing some of your own food or supporting local growers to cut down on emissions from long-distance transportation. 

You can make your garden more climate-resilient. Start with a few steps and build on them to help your garden successfully adapt to climate change.   

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.

Learn what not to do in your garden this summer

Do you do to-do lists?  I do. They help keep me focused and organized.  And boy is it satisfying to check things off.  But this time of year, I have another list, a summer What Not To-Do List for my garden.  This keeps me from serious missteps which can harm plants or waste time and money.   

Don’t: Plant

First on my What Not To-Do List is planting.  It’s just too hot and dry for plants to establish well.  Spring and fall are your best planting times.  Be wise and wait.  I know there are plant bargains to be had now.  As a career tightwad I’m tempted, too.  Don’t succumb.  

Don’t: Dig or Divide

No digging and dividing either.  Most plants prefer to have this done in spring or fall so they can settle in and develop robust roots before extreme weather.  So step away from that shovel. If you do plant or divide plants in summer you will need to water, water and water again, a significant time drain.  And still, your plants will be stressed. Very stressed.  

Don’t: Prune

Third on my What Not To-Do List is pruning.  Trees hate to be pruned in summer.  They weep copious sap and those wounds attract the abundant insects and diseases afoot now.  Summer pruning courts disaster.  Instead, prune trees in the dormant season – January to mid-March – when they are less vulnerable.  

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