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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pruning Primer

Air Date: Week of

Michael Weishan (WYS-hon), Living On Earth’s Traditional Gardener, and host Steve Curwood go to work shaping the bushes and trees in Weishan's yard. The pair discuss what is proper to prune in the spring and what is not.


CURWOOD: This is NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Hey, Michael, do you think you need to take a little more off the side?

WEISHAN: (laughs) I think we need to take a considerable more off the side of this particular bush.

CURWOOD: That's Michael Weishan, Living on Earth's traditional gardener. And today, we are going to tackle a tough subject, the spring pruning of shrubs. Michael, now why is this such a hard concept for people to grasp?

WEISHAN: The problem is that shrubs really fall into 2 different categories: some that can and should be pruned in the spring, in the early spring. And some that you need to wait until just after they bloom. So you really want to know what shrubs need to be pruned when before you start cutting.

CURWOOD: Okay, so how do you know which is which?

WEISHAN: Well, you have to (laughs) -- you have to go on a sort of shrub by shrub basis. Because some shrubbery blooms on new wood. It'll bloom on the branches it makes that season. Wajila, for instance, is an example of that. It'll grow, and the branches that grew in the early spring, in April and May and June, will then flower in July and August. Some shrubs, like lilacs, for instance, only flower on last year's wood. So if you cut away a lot of it. you're not going to have any bloom the following season. So for instance, we can take a shrub like this pussy willow, which I've already pretty much finished pruning, and pretty much cut it as much as we want, because it blooms on new growth.

CURWOOD: So how do you get started?

WEISHAN: For shrubs, essentially, it's pretty easy. Because you're essentially pruning to shape. You're trying to make the shrub into some sort of shape. There's really no correct way. I mean, here, for instance, we have -- this is a black pussy willow, Salix melanostacus.

CURWOOD: Ooh, so pretty.

WEISHAN: Yeah, the pussy willows are black, isn't that interesting?

CURWOOD: Yeah, it's pretty.

WEISHAN: Jet black, as opposed to the normal white. It's billed as a tall, upright shrub. But as you can see here, (Curwood laughs) this shrub's only a few years old and it's not tall, and it's not upright, and it's growing wide instead. It's, as a matter of fact, resisted every attempt I've made to prune it up. So now I'm going to have to cut it back, because it's growing into this beautiful Atlantic cedar here, and we don't want to do that.


CURWOOD: Do these principles of pruning apply to everything?

WEISHAN: No. There's a much bigger difference for trees, for instance. And if we come over, we'll just take a walk over.

(Footfalls on gravel)

WEISHAN: Unlike shrubbery, generally, where there's not a very correct, there's not a single correct way to prune, you want to prune to achieve a certain shape or size -- there is a general rule for small ornamental trees like this crabapple. You want to prune the branches that grow through the tree, and leave the branches that grow out. All the fruit, then, bearing, occurs on the exterior, where it's easier to pick. It provides a much better silhouette to the tree, and allows light and air circulation inside the tree, which prevents disease.

CURWOOD: When is the time to do this?

WEISHAN: Well, on trees like crabapples I have a tendency to cheat a little. Technically, you're supposed to prune fruit trees, including ornamental fruit trees like this, before the sap runs in February, even January in some parts of the country. The reason is that when the sap starts to run, you can encourage disease where you've been cutting. Because essentially, it's like an open wound. I actually like to prune these later on, when the leaves come out, so that you can sort of see the shape. Because as you're pruning bare branches, it's hard to see how much you're taking out. I've never had any problem. I don't know if that's scientifically proven, but I've been doing it all my life, so I'm going to continue to prune these crabapples, you know, pretty much whenever.

CURWOOD: Michael, this has been a great primer on pruning, but where do people get the information about their specific plants?

WEISHAN: You're going to want to consult a pruning guide. And there's one that just came out; it's been chosen as one of Garden Design magazine's best books of '97. And I really like it. It's by a very well-known author, Lee Reich. And he's a great tree specialist. And it deals with trees and shrubs in a wonderfully illustrated format. It tells you when to prune each, how to prune them, with big, easy-to-follow directions, selecting side branches on a fruit tree. It tells you everything you need to know, really, about pruning. And it's one of those things you do want to study up. Because, you know, once you cut that branch off, you can't put it back. And you can really do a lot of damage very quickly unless you know what you're doing.

CURWOOD: And the name of the book is?

WEISHAN: The name of the book is The Pruning Book, appropriately enough, by Lee Reich, R-E-I-C-H.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Michael. We'll talk to you again soon.

WEISHAN: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener, as well as publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. If you have any questions about pruning, prunes, or any aspect of gardening, head over to our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. When you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.



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