Pruning Form For Fun

Notes From the Gardener



Say the word "pruning" and most gardeners conjure up images of shaping arborvitae hedges with electric clippers. Or perhaps they envision trimming an apple tree.

I look at "pruning" as an art form that not only helps the environment of your garden, but creates a beautiful landscape at the same time. They don't call me "Richard Scissor-Hands" for nothin'!

Here at the farm I have been pruning the native trees and shrubbery for many years. I particularly enjoy working with hemlock and beech trees, as their fast growth habit makes for a quicker result visually.

Creating shapes from native trees takes time and patience but the rewards are many. For the organic gardener, the attraction these plantings have for songbirds is a primary benefit. Not only are you creating cover and nesting sites to attract these lovely birds, they in turn thank you by eating a lot of harmful insects and giving free concerts!

Another benefit of pruning is what I term the "winter garden" that is created. As the bleak landscape of the long winter season here unfolds, you start to see the defined shapes of the pruned trees. Instead of flowers and foliage to gaze at, you have a "garden of form" to attract the eye.

Pruning is not difficult, but it is time consuming. You must look at the long picture. It can take several years to define your native "topiary" into a form that is appealing.

Native hemlock trees are perhaps the easiest to form. They are very tolerant of pruning and branch and fill out rapidly. I have experimented with young trees and old here at the farm, with very different results. By topping a more mature tree, then gradually shaping the lower branches, you can end up with an "umbrella" tree. The one in our front yard is a lovely place to stand under and gaze at the summer garden - you don't get wet if it's raining and it's thick shade is a cool place to retreat to on a hot day.

Penny often chuckles at our "Dr. Seuss" tree in the far garden. I created it from a moderate sized hemlock by removing the top and several of the lower branches. I then trimmed all the foliage from the center, leaving "tufts" of foliage at the ends of the branches. Over time and with a bit of trimming, the "tufts" have filled out and created an oriental look that is very startling in winter. Young hemlocks are easily pruned into hedges or shaped gradually into more whimsical forms.

The native beech and oak trees are also easily pruned. Where a larger tree has been removed I simply allow the "suckers" to grow from the old roots. These in turn can be shaped into unique forms by gradually removing unwanted growth and some attentive topping and trimming. This young growth can also be attractively twisted or braided together (do this while the leaves are off) to create unusual trunks over time.

The beech trees hold their leaves into the winter and give a touch of relief to a drab landscape.

A good strong pair of pruning shears is a must for this project, as well as lopping shears (for heavier growth) and an over-head saw is very helpful to reach higher limbs as time progresses. Plan to spend time on this project. I like to wander in the fall garden, shears in hand and take a good look at the forms. Think about what you would like to do with this plant. Envision what it will look like five years from now. Then start to trim, just as you would a house-plant, cutting back to signs of new growth to create branching or removing branches that "cross" to promote the health of the shrub.

Have patience. Plan ahead. Take the time to stand back and view the tree. Work with what nature gives you, rather than forcing a form. The rewards are not immediate on this type of project, but I promise that you will enjoy your native shrubs for many years to come.

Happy Pruning!


Compost Chores and Garden Cleanup

Notes From the Gardener



As another growing season comes to a close, one of the major garden chores is the cleanup. All the spent plants are brought to the compost for use the following season when it will be returned to the soil. Perennials such as lavender, southernwood and sage are cut back to ground level, where next year's growth is evident on the old wood. What Penny doesn't use on her craft work also goes to the compost. Old squash vines, tomato plants, pepper plants - everything organic goes to the compost.

At first, Penny didn't understand my diligence in gathering organics for compost. She would throw her eyes skyward as I stopped the car at roadsides to put bagged leaves into the trunk. When I berated her for throwing egg shells and coffee grounds into the trash, she was sure I was obsessed. Now, however, Penny is equally diligent for she is schooled in the natural order.

How does one learn such things? By simply being still and observing. For instance, let me relate a recent occurrence. I was gathering together spent plants when I heard the geese overhead. My back needed stretching, so I stood erect and watched a large misshaped "vee" formation of Canada geese split and form two perfectly shaped "vee" groups directly overhead. As my entertainment was passing, a gust of wind drove a leaf so hard against my reddened ear that I "ouched" out loud. This brought my attention to the hundreds of leaves being loosed by the wind and brought to the earth where they were really starting to pile up. The forest floor was thick with them. My wondering brought me to ask where all the leaves went by summer's end. Well, they're eaten, of course. The leaves are actually consumed by a multitude of living things, ranging in size from microbes to earthworms. The leaves then become part of a soil that nurtures the trees above. It was at this point that I realized I was being given a lesson in organic gardening. These oak and pine are some of the largest plants on earth, but they sure don't need any 5-10-5.

When a tree breaks dormancy, the sap flows through its roots deep into the earth and gathers nutrients, delivering them high above to the new growth of leaves. Later the leaves fall. The leaves enrich the soil, the soil feeds the tree. Simple? You bet. I don't need to understand the processes by which organic compounds are broken down or altered. I leave that to those that it interests. My lesson has been this: when living things die they are returned to the soil, which is enriched and may now sustain new life. Simple.

I recall once reading how rains can leach nutrients from the topsoil into the subsoil so deep that they become "lost" or unavailable to plants because their roots just don't reach them. When I think of the depth that a large tree's roots reach into the earth, I realize how much of those "lost" nutrients are recovered and how nutrient laden leaves must be.

Our neighbor has just offered us his leaves again this year. Judging from the size of his place and the size of my truck, this will require numerous trips. Oh well, the thyme can be cut another day. Priorities. Some people shake their heads when they see me stockpiling leaves. I shake mine when I see people burning them.

A few lines from a favorite poem by Robert Frost come to mind.

"..I may load and unload

Again and again

Till I fill the whole shed,

And what have I then?


Next to nothing for weight:

And since they grew duller

From contact with earth,

Next to nothing for color.


Next to nothing for use,

But a crop is a crop,

And who's to say where

The harvest shall stop?"