Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It Only Takes a Moment

“So how about that weather?”

While that phrase seems a bit tired these days given the strange highs and lows we’ve seen it is a valid statement. The temperatures have been bouncing between freezing at night and the 80’s during the day and even the crops look confused. This of course makes it very hard to make any solid garden plans because we all know that the frost date unofficially is Easter which April 16th and while that is not far off, it seems like an eternity for those with a gardening disposition. There is some good news as there are certain tasks we can accomplish in the garden regardless of what the temperature is. For instance, despite the weather at the Test Gardens an aggressive regimen of pruning has been underway for several weeks starting at the end of February and finally reaching its completion when the town took away the last pile of debris last Friday. Before anyone gets alarmed, this is a normal process known as Structural Pruning. This form of very heavy pruning is done perhaps once every five years to once per decade with the express purpose of rejuvenating very old landscape plants that have not for some reason received full care and have become so large that they have lost their original form. In this process you are not killing these plants but rather hitting the reset button and in the process removing every volunteer tree or plant that has grown within their crown. It’s a win-win for the landscape plant in question and it brings dramatic change to your property.  The target area was the hedgerow along the driveway, which consisted of Wax Privet (Ligustrum japonicum) and Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), while a number of Carolina Cherry (Prunus caroliniana) and a few Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos). 

I'm pretty sure this is what a Horror movie for plants looks like.

Now to be clear if you are not familiar, Carolina Cherries (Prunus caroliniana) are semi-invasive and their seeds have a very high germination rate. This fact is made worse by the fact some species of wild birds like the fruit they produce. Unfortunately for us the fruit is somewhat poisonous and unlike the cherries we buy at the farmer’s market, they are lacking on sweet flesh as the fruit is mostly comprised of one big seed. Where possible I try to take out Carolina Cherries as they are evergreen and can rapidly out-compete most landscape plants unless they too are evergreen. I don’t have much of a dislike of Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos) as I find them graceful and given their small leaves perhaps one of the tidiest landscape trees I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. The problem I faced was that the one mature Willow Oak in the hedgerow was less than twenty feet from my house. The tree was Thirty feet tall, and while it might not be an issue for the next twenty to fifty years eventually its roots would heave the driveway and its branches would be over the roof which is considered a long-term hazard. This perhaps is the first lesson of this article that you can learn, do not put of tackling a long-term problem because the longer you avoid handling it the harder it becomes to deal with. A thirty-foot tall oak at an average of 1.5-2.5 inches in diameter/caliper can be handled with a careful diagonal cut facing towards what you want the tree not to hit when gravity pulls it down. Barring that careful use of a pole saw (in the case of the cherries) allows you to take out parts of the canopy so that the trunks pose no threat to you or your property.

AWWWW Yeah it was a garden party alright!
With all of that said, the hedgerow was pruned down to an average height of about three feet from an average height of ten feet. Even the Crape Myrtles were cut back heavily because truthfully they will recover and bloom heavier for it. Now I know there are certain Individuals in the Fayetteville Observer who claim that you should never prune Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), which is rather naïve. The fact is that Crape myrtles look best in a tree form where their patterned back provides year-round interest making them less a one trick pony reliant on the blooms to draw attention. In order to get that tree-form one has to prune regularly to encourage a set of strong main trunks. So when a certain well-known garden advice columnist says you shouldn’t prune them at all I have to wonder if perhaps he would do well to stick to daylilies and leave the real garden operations to those of us who aren’t afraid to get the job done. But enough on procedural sparring since that’s not what this entry is about.  As a general rule you should refrain from pruning a few things and technically you are not really refraining but rather delaying the act. Any flowering shrubs that flower on new growth, any fruiting landscape plants that fruit on new growth are things that should not be pruned until after blooming or fruiting. For instance it is long held that you should not prune Azaleas until after their blooming is over which tends to mean June. Although the strange temperatures have both Azaleas and dogwoods blooming very early I would still err on the side of caution and wait. If you must prune consider the three questions I ask myself while considering if I need to prune a plant.

“Does the plant have a health issue such as double leaders, branches crossing over or some form of damage?”

“If I prune this will it spur new growth that may be damaged by cold weather?”

“Is any part of this plant posing a danger to persons or property?”

Each of the above questions is a simple yes or no answer, and from them you can determine if you are taking the right course of action. For instance as part of the hedgerow project I had to also very selectively prune the Fig orchard which is on the driveway for branches that had started to reach over the driveway at a height that meant they would be hit by vehicles or be at head height. I also had to prune a few overly tall branches that would take the harvest out of reach. While technically in the short term this means less figs, in the long term it means a healthier specimen. Under most circumstances I realistically consider it better to prune things while they are actively growing so that they are actively healing which reduces the amount of time a wound is open to possible infection.
The entire clearing operation took four weeks and undoubtedly was a point of irritation to my neighbor whom actually protested it and found out that no; none of the hedgerow was on her property, ergo she could complain all she wanted but it wasn’t her property or problem.  My front yard was a mess for that entire time as I took the debris out in measured amounts cut to the size requirements for the town to pick it up. For note, Bulky Yard Waste is picked up once per week and the requirements are as follows; no limbs longer than 6 feet and thicker than 3 inches in diameter also if you put out a cubic yard they may not pick it up at all so if you need to break your pile into smaller ones do so. I always recommend that you put your pile in the street because the claw arm on the truck they use will damage your lawn if it’s on your lawn. The town isn’t liable for this damage so putting it in the street in a pile that by shape is longer than it is wide so it’s not a vehicular obstacle is the best way to avoid your property being damaged and getting the job done.

Check back next month for the next project, oh and just one more thing....

The first day of spring was about a day or so ago.

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