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Trimming & Pruning Your Way to Spectacular Spring/Summer Landscaping


By Mid February, yards and gardens are as anxious for the arrival of warm weather as the people who tend them.  Before you even think about fertilizer, it’s time to sharpen those pruning shears!

Roses and shrubs have suffered multiple nights of single digits and teens. Depending on the health of the plant, temperatures below 20F will often bring death to immature stems and branches.  Last summer was markedly more moist in Arkansas than recent drought years.  While this is good news for those who enjoyed green lawns all the way until frost, the normal end-of-summer dry period, does serve a purpose by slowing new growth on trees and shrubs allowing them time to harden off before winter.

Our last growing season brought abundant precipitation that produced bumber crops of hay and inches more growth on trees, shrubs, vines and garden vegetables. Unfortunately, the continued growth will prove useless for many common perennials  like grapes, raspberries, roses and shrubs including azaleas.

Winter burn is easy to identify and should be trimmed back to minimize disease and stimulate new growth this spring. I typically wait until it’s been two weeks since the last low below 25F.  Its not foolproof but usually is trustworthy.

As you look at your plants, you’ll easily recognize if a branch or cordon is shriveled. I use a fingernail to check for living tissue under the bark. Trim back to the first healthy bud.  This is also the time to reshape shrubs if necessary.  Sharp trimmers are essential.  Cut at an angle toward and about 1/8” from a bud without damaging it.

Cutting back shrubs leaves open wounds that expose the growth layers to freezing.  That is why I wait to prune plants until the worst of winter has passed. Most native trees can tolerate pruning before a freeze. However, for shrubs and smaller plants, a hard freeze in the low 20s or teens will often create a dead stub that will eventually rot and provide harbor for fungus and insects.

If you experienced ice damage to mature trees, its best to trim and smooth torn limbs before warm weather.  This is especially true for red oaks that will be more susceptable to oak wilt virus.  It’s best for any wounds to be cut smooth so the tree can seal itself off before airborn spores begin to circulate in spring.

A common pollarding practice known unaffectionately to professional gardeners and trained arborists as crepe murder.
A common pollarding practice known unaffectionately to professional gardeners and trained arborists as crepe murder.

Some plants like crepe myrtles can survive a winter bobbing but that doesn’t mean its recommended.  Too often you’ll see crepe myrtles butchered along highways.  This common sight has led the public to assume its the way to do things.

Crepe myrtles are available in short, medium and tall varieties if landscapers would only take the time to learn. Crepes come in dozens of colors as well.  Selecting a variety that is properly sized for an intended spot  takes a small amount forethought and knowledge.  Unfortunately, many self-taught landscapers plop in whatever color they can buy in bulk because they know they can get paid extra to keep an oversized plant trimmed up.

After the first bobbing, crepes will respond with an abundance of twigs that result in an ugly mass thereafter requiring the

annual ritual.  This assures the landscaper future work.  While this practice may serve some convenience along public highways it is a disservice to a home or business owner whose primary purpose for landscaping is esthetic.  It must be an individual decision if an overly dense mildew-prone bunch of blossoms is worth six months of bare fisted limbs with all the fingers missing.

The graceful form of a natural crepe myrtle.
The graceful form of a natural crepe myrtle.

Proper care of a crepe myrtle allows the plant to push up several graceful arms.  Natural crepes will bloom out beautifully every year without being bobbed.  A good rule of thumb is to never trim off more than a third of the growth at a time if you must prune at all.

As a crepe myrtle matures, it typically will send out fewer sprouts from the ground.  I prefer to select either 3 or 5 main shoots and snap off all other sucker shoots at the ground.  If you cut them, they tend to come back three times as thick, as if bobbed.  A sharp jerk at a low angle separates new sprouts almost effortlessly.  You would NOT do this to a rose but a crepe myrtle easily heals and it stimulates fewer sprouts.

If a main branch must be cut or is damaged from ice or windstorms, the plant will begin to produce new shoots for several years until it regains balance between the root system and branches.  The thicker your crepe grows, the more it is susceptible to powdery mildew and aphids that can infect nearby plants.

Young crepe branches can also be woven and will grow into strong landscape elements that will beautify your landscape for many years.  Polled crepes can be rejuvenated into beautiful plants but it requires retraining both plant and caretaker.

If you’d like to know more about proper care and pruning your roses, shrubs or fruit trees, Avalon Keep Botanical Gardens will be hosting a series of hands-on seminars through early spring.  Call 479-437-4902.

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