Pruning basics

In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

     It is time to do some trimming, and not just trimming Christmas trees.  For many shrubs, the dormant season is the best time to trim and shape them.  However, this does not include all shrubs.
     Shrubs which bloom in the early spring should not be trimmed at this time.  Most of those shrubs have already set their buds for next spring and trimming now would be cutting off next year’s blooms.  Such shrubs should be trimmed within a few weeks after they have finished blooming in the spring.
    For shrubs that bloom later, and for many foliage shrubs, this is an excellent time to trim and shape.  We have had enough cold weather that the plants have entered dormancy, so trimming should not result in lush growth that would be killed by winter weather.  Topiaries shaped now will hold their form well into next year’s growing season.  They may need a touch-up after new growth in the spring, but that is a minor consideration.
     When trimming, use sharp by-pass pruners and clean and disinfect them often.  While power shears may make quick work of the job, they tend to tear and damage woody stems.  Pruners also give you much better control.  Make cuts at angles that will tend to hide the cut from view.  This is not always possible, but limiting the number of white cut marks will make your plant look nicer in the landscape.  Cuts should be made right below a leaf node.  Major trimming of branches should be done at a branch intersection.  This allows the cut to cure and heal more quickly and prevents snags that stand out and catch debris.
     You may use many of the trimmings for your holiday decorating.  Holly and conifer branches have been a part of holidays for centuries.  I also like to use other broadleaf evergreens in arrangements.  It is important to remember that the trimmings are dead and will quickly desiccate and become a fire hazard.  That is not usually a great concern for wreaths and swags used outside, but spraying them with an anti-desiccant will make them last longer.  If you are using trimmings inside, they will need water.  You may purchase individual vials for branches, but these must be checked often and filled with water when needed.  I prefer to use vases or other containers.  I find that moist peat moss or sand will help support the branches and supply moisture.  You still need to check them and add water when they are dry.
     You do not have to use vases to display greenery.  I often cover soup cans with wrapping paper to make arrangements.  I use a mix of various types of evergreens, including some ferns and hellebore leaves that are still green in the gardens.  I also like to use trimmings from non-green evergreens.  Some conifers turn bronze or have tips of yellow or white.  These will give great contrast to your arrangements.  While I like dried arrangements, I prefer more color for holiday decorations.  Spray paint is my friend.  I often spray dried hydrangea clusters, ornamental grasses and other garden materials with the colors I want in the arrangements.  I am particularly fond of spraying a bit of metallic paint to accent the flowers.  I also like to use branches from birches, red and yellow twig dogwoods, coral-bark maple and other trees and shrubs with interesting colors.  I sometimes like to use branches with interesting shapes, including my contorted filbert.  Sometimes these branches get a little spray paint also.  Of course, the berries of the winterberry hollies are the crowning touch in many arrangements.  They provide a vibrant red that shouts “Christmas”.
    Many vines will provide material for making wreaths.  You may either roll and made the shape with wire or weave the vines to form the rings.  Either way, they may be entirely covered in greenery or you may leave part of the vine exposed.  It is a matter of personal preference, so suit yourself.  Decorating is just the excuse you need to get out into the garden this month.



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